Vt. psychiatrist says base screen time on how you feel

Phones are never too far from people’s hands these days but is there an amount of screen time that becomes unhealthy?
Published: Apr. 19, 2023 at 5:41 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Smartphones are never too far from people’s hands these days, but is there an amount of screen time that becomes unhealthy? According to a University of Vermont researcher, it’s important to look at how that time is being spent.

Getting likes, scrolling videos, and sharing pictures are habits that feel like an extension of our existence for some.

“I’m a college student I’m also doing marketing for a business, I’m always on my phone, I use it on everything,” said Skieanne Miner of Waterbury, who says the key to screen time and social media is balance. “I try to keep it away from me as much as I can if it needs to be charged I try to keep it in my room when it’s not in my vicinity.”

“I think it I have a good relationship. It doesn’t dominate my life at all,” said Liz Raveche of Shelburne.

“One interesting question to ask is, How much control do I have over the phone? And how much control does the phone have over me?” said Dr. Andrew Rosenfeld, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the UVM Medical Center, who for the last decade has focused his research onthe impacts of screen time on our brains.

Smartphones were only connected to the internet around 15 years ago and many apps, like TikTok and Instagram, are much younger than that. “Even though they’re changing our brains, they’re changing really slowly. So, 10 or 20 years or even 50 or 100 years of social media or computers or technology is not showing up in the ways that our brains operate on a day-to-day basis from an evolutionary genetic standpoint,” Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld said the human brain wasn’t designed for constant stimulation and can get overwhelmed easily. Spending time on screens -- specifically social media -- can improve connectivity, creativity, and community. But it can also be disastrous for self-image and increase anxiety. Many might look at their screen time on their smartphones and say a lot of it is spent at work and for work.

“We can ask, is this actually helping my work, either productivity or connectivity, like community or some other goal? It might be interfering. We might think that we’re talking more, but are we moving things forward? Is it meaningful use?” Rosenfeld said.

Social media and screens engage users because there’s always something to look at. Rosenfield said weighing the costs and benefits of having time away could be helpful. “A pause -- even a five-minute pause in your day -- can help with that. An actual sort of abstinence period of taking a day or a week or a couple of weeks off of social media, I think, is relatively illuminating. To say, ‘Oh, I missed that. I’m less connected to these important people’ or ‘I really don’t miss my news feeds. When I go back -- If I go back -- I’m gonna do things a little bit differently,’” Rosenfeld said.

Users might think there’s a magic number for the amount of screen time per day but Rosenfeld said there isn’t a specific target He says if users are spending more than eight hours a day, it might be worth reflecting on what it’s being used for.

We asked readers on our website how many hours a day they spend on screens.

  • 60% said four or more hours of screen time a day.
  • 19% said between two and three hours.
  • 13% said between 1 and two hours.
  • 8% said under 1 hour a day.

For kids on phones, the recommendations are different. Rosenfeld says because research on screen time is so new, young people and children are leading the way in experimenting with new technology and more screens. He says social media and devices are part of the social fabric of young people but they might be looking to adults for behavior to model. He encourages conversations about where social media and screens are on the spectrum from helpful to hurtful.

“I would be more likely to recommend, let’s set some limits to begin with and see how things go. If you’re finding that 10 minutes of Snapchat is going great, then maybe we try 30 minutes today. But if you’re finding that 10 minutes is causing you to cry every time afterward and feel terrible about yourself, let’s maybe save that for next year. I think having a pretty frequent check-in is important because it changes very quickly,” Rosenfeld said.

He says social media use can be different from one child to the next and signs that social media is problematic could be if their screen is taken away and they have a strong reaction.

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