How much is too much screen time and how can we cut down during lockdown?

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown has had a massive impact on our daily lives – leading many of us to spend even more time in front of screens.

Between working remotely, socialising via video conference calls and binging Netflix when we would otherwise have been doing stuff outside, there’s a lot of staring at our phone/laptop/TV screens.

This is really saying something because we were already spending quite a lot of time in front of screens before the pandemic hit.

A pre-lockdown survey conducted by Counselling Directory back in October found that, out of the 900 member therapists who took part, 39% said clients reported that mobile phone usage impacts their relationships the most.

Meanwhile, 40% of therapists said it was somewhat common for clients to bring up mobile phone usage in their lives, 22% reported it was quite common and 8% said very common.

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Mid-lockdown, Dr. Daria J. Kuss, Associate Professor in Psychology and Associate Course Leader of MSc Cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University, previously told ‘During the pandemic, we spend large amounts of time in front of screens – working remotely, in video chat meetings with colleagues, online video social get-togethers with friends, online yoga classes, you name it – over time, this can drain our energy as we are missing out on face-to-face contact, more regular breaks, and clear boundaries between professional and personal life.’

So – the fact that technology has become our primary link to the outside world notwithstanding – how much is too much time spent in front of a screen?

Dr Daniel Atkinson, who works with, tells us that there’s value in spending time in front of screens during this trying time, but there needs to be a healthy balance between screen time and not screen time.

He says: ‘In some cases, you must be online for working hours so this cannot be avoided, and keeping in touch with family and friends is important in these trying times when you’re apart.

‘However, screen usage needs to have a balance. Continuously looking at screens can cause headaches, dry eyes and can affect your sleep. You should try to make sure you aren’t looking at devices as soon as you wake up – give yourself time to adjust before reaching for your phone.’

Psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member Phillip Karahassan also highlights the benefits of modern technology, saying: ‘Positives include connection, sense of self-esteem and control over a part of our life allowing us to feel in control and gain validation and contentment in our lives.

‘However, it is important to make sure that technology is not the sole source of these feelings as we can become overly reliant on it to make us feel good. Leading us to constantly look to technology to give us a sense of validation and control.’

He added: ‘In reality, we have no control over the amount of validation and self-esteem that is given through technology as well as the physical world.

‘However the more you use it, the more likely it is that you will get that hit of serotonin you receive from a retweet or completing a level on your favourite game.

‘If we are so wrapped up in technology then our locus of control is left solely to technology to cater for. As a result likes, updates and connection online can become overly important and, as a result, cause us to feel anxiety, tension and stress when those needs are not met.

‘This can impact how we see life outside of technology as something that is not fulfilling or pales in comparison to technological validation.’

On the subject of how you can tell if someone is spending too much time in front of a screen, Therapist and Counselling Directory member Deshara Pariag tells us signs include ‘preoccupation with constant checking and being on their phone’.

Deshara adds: ‘This may be due to fear that they could be missing out on something online, which can lead to withdrawal, losing sense of time and becoming irritable, anxious and feeling down.

‘Additionally, they may become socially anxious and avoid talking to people in person due to the anxiety.

‘It would be time to step away when the individual notices that they are focusing the majority of their time online, on social media and becoming attached to the online world which can be superficial. This may include excessive use of social media, watching videos and eventually impacting social and occupational levels of functioning.’

Phillip adds: ‘We need to look at how screen time is impacting our physical, mental and emotional health.

‘Just like any stimulus we create an identity when using our phones, are on social media or using technology in general. This can become engrossing that you start prioritising your screen identity over other parts of your life.

‘Too much screen time would be when you are neglecting other parts of your life and it is having a detrimental impact. For example, so much screen time that you don’t connect with friends and family or your physical health starts to suffer as a result.

‘Remember to check in with you and make sure that you are living a balanced life.’

When it comes to limiting your screen time, Deshara recommends slowly lessening the time you spend with your tech each day.

She says: ‘Set limits. Journaling and writing down thoughts and feelings to become aware of the impact can be helpful.

‘This can help them identify the unhelpful patterns and how screen time is deteriorating their mental health. It can allow them to take useful steps to becoming more productive, build confidence and reduce procrastination.’

Meanwhile, Dr. Daniel recommends: ‘Stop using your phone or other screens an hour before you go to sleep, and keep it out of your bedroom if possible. Flashing screens and ringing phones are known to disrupt sleep.

‘Exercise during lockdown is important to keep moving and to benefit your mental health.

‘When you take the time to get some fresh air, stay off your phone to give yourself a real break, if even just for an hour. You should try to get into the habit of doing this each day.’

He adds: ‘An increase in screen time is expected during lockdown, but if it is becoming a problem – if you’re feeling down as a result, or you’re experiencing headaches, for example, then try to give yourself allocated time without phones, laptops and TV.

‘In terms of overusing your phone, you can give yourself boundaries for time spent on apps to try to curtail the habit.

‘A creative hobby may be of use to you to limit screen time, such as baking, reading or playing games.’

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