There’s a lot of scary information out there about how much screen time a child should have—that too many hours staring at a phone or tablet triggers children’s stress responses, stunts their social development and more.
But what about adults? With so many of us tied to technology for our entire work day, and then using it to live our lives outside of work, is it even possible to limit? Should we bother?
Yes, experts believe, though they’re largely hesitant to give a standardized number of hours we should be spending staring at a screen. Because of a lot of us use these tools for work, limiting can be difficult. But, if you’re like most people in the U.S., there’s a lot of room for cutting back: The average adult spends close to 11 hours looking at a screen per day and checks their phone every 10 minutes.
What’s the difference between that and a screen addiction? Jessica Wong, a technology and addiction expert at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, said in a previous Rewire article that a tech addiction “impacts the same area of the brain as drugs and alcohol.”
“Still, it takes a lot for technology use to meet the definition of dependence,” she said. “We call it addiction when it starts to impact day-to-day function, relationships with children, spouses, children and friends. …
“The signs of digital addiction mimic the signs you see in someone who’s an alcoholic. People are constantly nagging them about their use, so they find creative ways to lie or conceal use from their family or spouse. … For example, they’ll sit in the car on their device before they walk in the door. They need to immediately respond to any text alert, and some people even feel ‘phantom vibrations,’ imagining that they received alerts that didn’t actually happen.”
Even if you’re not addicted, you might experience negative effects of too much phone use. Excessive use has been linked to depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts in teens. The researcher behind the study, Florida State University’s Thomas Joiner, recommended teenagers stick to one to two hours of use a day to stay in “a statistically safe zone.”
Some experts, like conversation advocate Celeste Headlee, believe that cellphone use is also stunting our ability to connect with one another in real life. Research suggests that the mere sight of a cellphone can be hugely distracting during a conversation.
Cutting back to one to two hours likely isn’t feasible for you or any adult person. But, if you are interested in going on a technology diet, how can you figure out a limit that works for your life?
Anya Kamenetz, author of “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life,” said it’s all about priorities. Think about what you really want and need to do in your life. Is your technology use stopping you from doing those things? For adults, it’s likely more practical to set limits based on what you want and need to accomplish rather than time on the clock.
“Are you getting enough sleep? Exercise? Outdoor time?” Kamenetz said to Rewire. “Are you eating at least two meals a day without the phone in your hand? When’s the last time you went 24 hours without checking your email and social media?”
When you’re not at work, be mindful of how much time you’re spending on your phone or other screens. According to a study by Braun Research Center and Bank of America, we’re more likely to think about our phones when we wake up than about our significant others. Another study showed 80 percent of smartphone users check their phones before they brush their teeth in the morning.
Putting a few healthy habits in place can help keep you in check. In addition to eating without your phone in hand and taking walks without your headphones on, “don’t keep your phone by your bed,” Kamenetz said. “Put it to sleep in a different room and get some things done in the morning without checking it. Turn off all possible notifications.”
Victoria L. Dunckley is a psychiatrist who writes about screen time for Psychology Today. According to her, not only will you be able to accomplish more by limiting your at-home technology use, you’ll be able to think more clearly and creatively while you do it. It’s a major incentive to reduce your screen time.
“Everyone’s frontal lobe functions better with less screen time, so planning and problem-solving will come more easily,” she wrote. “You’ll be much more likely to follow through on what you said you would do… Improved frontal lobe function helps us sustain efforts and be self-disciplined. It builds ‘grit.'”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for the daily newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she edits and writes the articles that appear on Rewire, and works with its pool of freelance journalists. She has also written episodes of PBS Digital Studios series “Sound Field” and “America From Scratch.” She’s the host of the history webseries “30-Second Minnesota,” which was nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy Award. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.