Maybe Adults Need Screen Time Limits Too

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It goes without saying, digital devices are the accessory of our era.

Within a decade they’ve replaced a huge array of tools (from that old clunky analogue alarm clock through to Dictaphone, notebook and typewriter) with handy applications, the promise of productivity and the shiny distraction of scrolling through social media.

Digital technologies have colonised most corners of our lives from the bedroom, the supermarkets queue and even sitting on the loo, but we are starting to notice the impact of the constant connection and information overload on our relationships, our attention spans and our sleep.

We live in a world that uploads 400 hours of video content to YouTube every minute and in which someone has invented an app which will tell you the best part of a movie to take a toilet break in (for real, it’s called RunPee!). But it’s also one in which young people are experiencing record levels of mental health issues, there is an epidemic of loneliness and no app or piece of software can replace a hug.

Much of the attention given to the impacts of technology has been on the risks and dangers to children and young people.  They’re the ones whose underdeveloped brains, ability to embrace change and attraction to novelty are potentially most at risk of access to screens, especially when its unrestricted, unfiltered and unsupervised.

Screen time limits both in Australia and the USA are prescribed for children and young people. These limits (of 2 hours a day for kids between 5 and 17 years) are contentious, and need to be considered alongside a range of principles for parenting in a digital world and what constitute ‘healthy digital habits’.

One problem with screen time as a metric is that it ignores considerations of the quality of the content being consumed as well as the context in which the device use occurs. Thinking about screen time alone is like counting calories in food and not giving consideration to the vitamins and minerals we need for balanced nutrition, or ignoring the relationship we might have with food and healthy eating. Moving beyond screen time limits is about considering virtual vitamins and our overall digital diets – are they nourishing and supportive or draining and dysfunctional?

For example, a 14-year-old playing Fortnite with their cousin in another city as a way to catch up and hang out for several hours on a particularly rainy day in the school holidays can be considered very differently in context to an 8-year-old playing the same game (which is rated for kids over 13) with strangers every day before and after school.

There are huge variations too in how we use technology, not just the apps we use and brands we might follow, but right down to the thoughts and cognitions we have when we scroll into a perfect flat lay of someone’s humblebrag about #todaysoffice. Scrolling certain aspirational Instagram hashtags as a 12-year-old might have totally different impacts on a 15-year-old (or even 25-year-old) who has participated in digital/media literacy education to reveal the way that some images are manipulated to create unattainable beauty ideals and can outsmart negative thoughts around their own daily (makeup free, #nofilterneeded) reality.

Another issue with screen time limits is that they only apply to tech use for leisure, magically presuming that time in front of screens for ‘education’ is always high quality and free from impacts, for example eye strain.

Likewise, I wonder – why don’t screen time limits apply to adults? Do the impacts of sitting facing a blue-light emanating device for hours a day disappear after your teens? Do grown-ups consume only digital superfoods and make perfect choices about what they engage in online?

Again, to use the analogy with food, the guidelines for daily calorie intake don’t stop with kids – they apply to adults too (in Australia it’s 2000 calories).  Is it time for adults to start putting their own limits in place and being more conscious of their clicking, swiping and scrolling habits?

Entrepreneurs, business owners and those who work in creative industries are most prone to large volumes of time online and facing screens as part of their role.  Stats that are now about a decade old indicated that we were consuming the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information a day!  We can only assume that by now, it’s much more than that with the ubiquity of devices and the trend to use more than one screen at a time (yes, I’m looking at those folks who tweet while watching #MAFS or #QandA), so how do we monitor not just the quality of the information we’re consuming but the limit to what our brains can keep accurately keep track of?

For many people taking a ‘Digital Detox’ is a strategy they employ to try to regain that sense of self and our pre-internet brains (the one that was OK with being alone with our thoughts or staring into space on public transport). However just like with juice cleanses, they’re not likely to lead to long term behaviour change. They might reset a habit temporarily but without really reshaping underlying thoughts and behaviours, we’re likely to fall back into mindless scrolling routines, cheeky checking of social media to reward even the slightest productivity and habits that are pretty distant to being our best selves!

Maybe instead, it’s time for a more positive, proactive approach to our digital habits, so that we might walk the talk for our kids and co-workers and maintain mastery over our digital lives, rather than being held slave to our screens.

It might start with setting time limits (using, ironically, apps that help track this and nudge behaviours back on target) to avoid binge sessions, and build to better curating the brands, themes and people you follow, the information you share out and the tone you use online (we can tend to get our ranty-pants on when eye contact is absent!).  The trick is not pretending that digital abstinence is realistic (for most of us) but that we have the power to shape our choices and habits (and use the unfollow button liberally).

First published on The Women’s Pic: