BY Saashya Rodrigo

The shift to at-home schooling and teleworking hasn’t given us much of a choice but to use the screen as our gateway to normalcy. Whether it’s a laptop, tablet, desktop, phone or even the television, our eyes are glued to a screen more often than not.

One study conducted by researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada found that screen time had increased greatly across the Canadian population. Specifically, 74 percent of mothers, 61 percent of fathers and an alarming 87 percent of children had experienced an increase in screen time since the beginning of lockdowns last year.

A study based in China found that 70 percent of its 1,033 participant pool experienced increased screen time since the outbreak. Similarly, another study with over 4,000 participants across different European countries reported a 65 percent increase in screen time.

It’s undeniable that there has been a global increase in screen time since the beginning of the pandemic. The next question is how much screen time are we actually getting – and how detrimental can this be to our health and wellbeing, if at all?

One UK-based study conducted during lockdown noted that participants averaged approximately 7.2 hours of screen time with adults below 34 reporting higher levels of screen time than those aged 65 years and above.

Nottingham Trent University conducted a study that specifically focussed on children and parenting. In its pre-pandemic research, it found that a third of children experienced six or more hours of daily screen time.

Fast forward to the pandemic… and the study found that 82 percent of parents said their children’s daily screen time had greatly increased. Three in 10 parents said their children were experiencing at least an additional four hours of non-school related screen time daily.

These numbers are dangerously high when we consider how this impacts children. In 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated that two or more hours of daily screen time reduced children’s performance on language and cognitive assessments.

Results from scans of children who experienced more than seven hours of daily screen time demonstrated a thinning of the brain’s cortex – the area of the brain related to reasoning and critical thinking skills.

Increased screen time can be just as detrimental to adults.

One study found that among those who are 25 years and older, every hour of television watched reduced life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Kalyani in India investigated the effects that the pandemic and lockdowns had on adults who worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as well as undergraduates and postgraduates.

It was concluded that relative to pre-pandemic conditions, participants experienced much higher symptoms of depression and physical symptoms relating to chronic stress such as headaches, digestive issues, hormonal imbalances and fatigue.

While many studies have found a link between increased screen time and negative health outcomes, there remains the question about causation versus correlation. Prior to the pandemic, researchers debated whether or not the negative outcomes were caused by increased screen time or if they were merely correlated. This made way for reversed hypotheses on whether, for example, depression was the cause of increased screen time rather than the other way around.

Given the controversy behind this topic of research, some researchers have questioned whether we’re asking the wrong question.

Oregon-based author and psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee argues that how we spend our screen time may matter more than the duration of screen time.

In her book titled ‘Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World,’ Dodgen-Magee advocates a lifestyle where screen time is responsibly, strategically and purposefully spent, thereby potentially mitigating screen time related negative consequences.

For instance, scrolling through social media for hours on end may have a higher correlation with depressive symptoms than browsing research on the internet for the same amount of time in order to explore a topic or answer a question.

However, such opposing arguments are few and far between, and are often the subject of criticism, given the extremity of the viewpoints and their obliviousness to the inevitable dangers of extreme levels of screen time. It may be far more powerful for both questions to coexist – especially during a global pandemic.

Perhaps we need to be mindful of the hours we spend in front of a screen while also learning to maximise our productivity so that much needed time away from the screen isn’t being sacrificed.

Finding that balance during a pandemic is as necessary as it is challenging.