Stuck to the screen?

While there are lots of ways that social networking can potentially support our mental, emotional, and even physical health, there are warnings to heed.

Especially at risk are young children, who are now exposed to screens at younger and younger ages. Some kids even have an online presence from infancy, as parents post baby photos, personal stories, and progress reports online. And we used to be scared our parents would bring out our old baby photo albums or home movies. Now kids have to worry about someone Googling their name and finding YouTube videos of them in diapers!

In terms of screen time, the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends:

  • for kids under 2 years of age, screen time should not be permitted.
  • for kids 2 to 5 years old, screen time should be limited to less than 1 hour a day.
  • for kids older than 5, screen time should be limited to less than 2 hours a day.

Compare that to the numbers reported by Statistics Canada: about 76% of children aged between 5 and 11 years get more than 2 hours of screen time per day.

It's not unheard of for a child to get home from school and spend their entire afternoon and evening switching their attention from one screen to another until bedtime: text messaging, scrolling on social media, computer game, TV show, online chat, and sleep. Who knows? They may then fall asleep and dream about getting to the next level on their current favourite video game. Aside from possibly restless sleep, what's the harm in a life lived stuck to the screen? Here are a few potential online-living hazards that apply to both children and adults:

Pain: Ergonomics is the science of healthy workspaces. When we sit at a computer workspace that has poor ergonomics, the result can be back and neck pain, as well as wrist and hand problems.

Prevent it:

  • In general, a monitor should be positioned just below eye level and at an arm's length away from you. Wrists should be positioned parallel to the keyboard with elbows at about a 90-degree bend. Feet should rest comfortably flat on the ground.
  • Consider the main parts of a workspace and make them suit the person who uses it most. Fitted back supports can be purchased and used to discourage slouching.
  • If it's a child's workspace, invest in a kid-sized chair, mouse, and desk. That way, a small child will not strain their neck to look up at a monitor placed at adult eye level.
  • For children, set limits on how long they can sit in front of the computer and encourage breaks.
  • Be a good role model, too, by setting reminders for yourself to get up from your workspace now and then for stretch-and-move breaks.

Eyestrain: Our eyes were not designed to stare at flickering screens all day long. And yet that's how many of us spend most of our waking hours. Although it's true that digital screens emit blue light, many eye issues that are caused by prolonged screen time are not due to blue light, but rather something called computer vision syndrome. Computer vision syndrome can be a real strain. Eyestrain occurs when your eyes simply get tired from too much use. Eyes that simply feel sleepy and slightly sore can become dry, watery, and itchy. Blurred vision, headaches, and trouble shifting focus can develop.

Prevent it:

  • Give your eyes regular breaks away from the screen. Schedule a timer on your computer to go off every half-hour or so to remind you to rest. Every 20 minutes, look about 20 feet away from the computer screen for at least 20 seconds.
  • While working on the computer, people have a tendency to forget to blink! The resulting dry, irritated, and tired eyes can be prevented by consciously remembering to blink your eyes, encouraging tear formation, and keeping your eyes moist.
  • In addition, sometimes lighting changes, glare-reduction, and adjusting the brightness settings on your computer can help to lessen the strain.
  • Experiment with display text size and background colour to find a setting that works best for your eyes.

Obesity: According to a large survey done by Statistics Canada, 25% of people who spent their leisure time watching 21 or more hours of television were also classified as obese. Men and women who spent 11 hours or more per week online were more likely to be overweight than those who spent 5 or fewer hours. And among children, computer use has been linked to higher levels of body fat and excessive television-watching has contributed to the increase in childhood obesity. So, as our hours in front of screens increase, so do our waistlines and other associated health risks, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Prevent it:

  • Start a screen time log for yourself and for your family. You can use your smartphone to log this, as most smartphones have a feature to track screen time. Record how much time you spend in front of screens over the course of a normal week - you might be shocked at the number of hours sucked away! For every one of those hours, imagine how many other activities you could have been doing that would support your health.
  • Make a plan to substitute at least a few of those hours with physical activity.
  • Additionally, think about your eating habits in relation to screens. Do you snack while you're channel- and net-surfing? Screen-time eating can become mindless, and all of these extra calories can suddenly sneak into your day. Make meals and snacks screen-free activities.

Mental health: It's probably not the first time you've heard that social media can harm your mental health. You may even be tired of hearing this, but it's because there have been many studies that show a link between social media use and numerous mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Now that it's almost impossible to avoid social media in our daily lives, we need to rethink how to utilize it without falling victim to the risks.

Prevent it:

  • Limit the time you spend scrolling each day. It's easy to lose track of time when you're scrolling down on Instagram – but a study has shown that people who limit their time spent on social media to under 30 minutes per day report happier moods.  
  • Follow people and pages that encourage you or bring you joy. If you notice that particular types of social posts make you feel anxious or depressed, you're not alone. Unfollow or mute content that bothers you, and instead follow the content that make you happy.
  • Consider a social media detox. Just like any other detox, you can choose to set a period of time and stay away from social media. It's easier to quit something when you already know the advantages of quitting. If you benefit from a social media cleanse, you may feel more comfortable reducing your time spent on social media in general.

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