Too Much Time Staring at a Screen Can Affect Physical and Mental Health
By Annabel Cooper
The amount of time we spend staring at screens sky-rocketed in March 2020. We speak to the experts about the impact this has had on our lives, and those of our children, and look at the importance of taking a break from our electronic devices.
Many members of the ‘sandwich generation’ have had to juggle working from home with home-schooling and checking in with older relatives. On the positive side, available technology has meant we can actually do many of these things. The downside however, is that boundaries between work, school and home have become less defined, making it difficult for us to ‘switch off’.
“For many people their job has essentially changed over the last two years,” said Latisha Lister-Burgess, Executive Director of the Employee Assistance Programme of Bermuda (EAP).
“I used to have a lot of face-to-face meetings, but now the majority of my day is Zoom meetings. I didn’t stare at a screen for eight hours before and I’ve found, even in these last few months, I’ve started getting these lingering headaches.”
This situation also has a negative impact on our mental health. Firstly, because communicating via a screen can’t truly replace in person conversations, and secondly, increased use of technology has been associated with increased anxiety.
“There’s that disconnection,” continued Ms Lister-Burgess. “When we’re talking with people, engaging with people, often we have that camaraderie and even though Zoom and Microsoft Teams allow us to see people, it’s a bit more impersonal so we are losing some of that engagement.”
To counter that, she said, something as simple as “picking up the phone and connecting with people in a way that doesn’t feel like everything is a meeting” can make a difference.
Ms Lister-Burgess added that she has also seen increased anxiety because of what people are likely to face when they turn their computer on and seemingly 24/7 communications from the workplace.
“In the past, if you turned on your laptop, you were going to do something with work, so it felt like a natural part of your day. Now, when we turn on our laptop, people are starting to get anxious. How many more meeting invites will I have? How many emails am I going to be bombarded with? Anxiety increased because now it feels like, ‘what’s lurking on the other side of my computer when I open it up?’”
She also said a lack of boundaries, caused by working from home, means there is “no going home” and people are receiving communications around the clock.
“You see people sending emails at one, two or three am,” she explained. “I’m finding we are not really respecting the work hours anymore.”
She said businesses have varied in their response to this issue with some doing “real work right now on understanding the impact this pandemic has had on people’s mental health” and others who “are like, ‘you’re at home, you should consider that a benefit of not having to come into the office, so chop, chop, make it happen’”.
She encouraged people “to take a moment of reflection and pause and say, ‘where am I really at? What’s really manageable? What are my resources? What are my support systems and what do I need in order to continue?’”
People need to consider having “brave conversations” with their employers, she added. “We can’t assume the manager knows what you’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s our responsibility to raise our hand and say ‘hey, you may not know, but this is what’s going on that’s getting in the way of the work’”.
IMPACT ON CHILDREN
Naomi Taylor and Frances Parkes, both Board Certified Behaviour Analysts at behavioural consultancy, Intuition, said increased screen time has had both positive and negative consequences for children.
“The last normal academic year is two grade levels below,” said Ms Taylor who added that since that time they have been “doing school work on screen, talking to friends on screen and downtime playing games on screens. It’s a real blurring of the lines.”
As with adults, the ability to stay connected through their devices hasn’t all been negative, particularly at the start of the pandemic when so much was still unknown.
“Keeping children connected to their friends was crucial and offered normality for them,” explained Ms Parkes. Ms Taylor added that some of their clients had actually prospered when the pressure of face-to-face was taken away:
“Some younger teens have thrived making friends over remote platforms. The key now is to help them generalise that to when they’re face-to-face running around on the playground.”
Nic Scanlon, a school counsellor, even witnessed “a bit of a backlash against Zoom” when children returned to in-person learning. “Whereas before there was a novelty, now some people are sick of it,” he said. “I think on some level, students have never wanted to be in school more.”
He added that with video games, where young people can play online with their friends, the “social connection piece is good.” He warned however that “violence matters! What’s the content of the game?” Minecraft, for example he said, builds on cognitive skills. He emphasised it was important that parents are “mindful of who are they playing with,” and the “habit-forming aspect.”
Ms Taylor and Ms Parkes advised parents to “always be involved” and look out for worrying signs linked to too much screen time such as lower grades, reading less, exercising less, becoming overweight, and having aggressive thoughts and behaviours.”
Screen rules, therefore, are important and must be agreed to as a family and enforced consistently.
HOW DO YOU DETERMINE THE RULES?
“Moderation”, said Ms Parkes. “Video games are fine in moderation. This is the healthiest approach to using screen time, as well as being present and aware of what our children are doing while using their tablets.”
While every household is different and you have to consider the whole family, a general rule, she continued, is little to no screen time for children under two-years-old; no more than 1 hour a day for pre-schoolers and no more than 2 hours a day for school aged children.
Teens, she explained, are “much harder” when they are “engaged in TV or mobiles for more than two hours a day,” but “you can encourage other activities” and “create no tech zones in your house.”
She suggested “no screens in the bedroom or parts of the evening where all members of the family, including parents, put their phones and screens away,” and added that everyone should “avoid screen time too close to bedtime to help with a calming winddown.”
Mr Scanlon emphasised the importance of parents as role models. “You’ve got to be mindful how much time you, as parents, are on your device,” he said. “Are we checking ourselves? Are we putting them down? We tell our kids to read, but are we reading?”
Scheduling screen time and screen breaks is important for both children and adults. For children, Ms Parkes and Ms Taylor suggested screen time be earned based on homework, activities and behaviour.
If a child has difficulty “transitioning” to another activity, they advised breaking up what screen time actually is. “Maybe it’s not gaming for two hours. Maybe it’s gaming for half an hour, but you can go on the iPad and do some other apps,” said Ms Parkes.
For adults, Ms Lister-Burgess advised not doing online meetings back-to-back and to take regular breaks. “Go get some tea, go for a walk, do a breathing exercise, something, but get yourself away from the screen!”
Now is a great time of year to take your screen break outside, be it a walk on the beach or a bike ride on the Railway Trail. Eat a meal outside. If it’s a family affair, ask your children to make the choice.
“Choices are important,” said Ms Taylor. “Any time we’re asking children to stop something preferred, give them some control. Shall we go down to the beach for a swim or go out for dinner? Shall we eat outside or in the kitchen today?”
The EAP offers a variety of webinars and training related to this issue as well as support for companies and their staff. For more information go to www.eap.bm or call 292-9000.
If you would like to know more about Intuition and the work they do, visit www. intuitionbda.com.