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What’s the link between bad health and screen time on various devices?

A new research has found connections between the time we spend in front of some screens and certain adverse health consequences.

Woman relaxing at home watching tv and holding the remote control

New research has found connections between the amount of time people spend in front of such screened devices and different negative results for health.

The findings of the study, which appear in the BMC Public Health journal, lay the foundations for future studies to investigate these correlations in more depth.

Television time and health

Television expanded around the globe in the 20th century, becoming an integral part of the lives of many people.

The links between watching TV for extended periods of time and different health effects have been investigated through large amounts of studies.

Scientists have found , for instance, connections between significant TV viewing and obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as impaired metabolism of glucose.

The link between long periods of time spent in front of the TV and less healthy eating habits, such as eating more fast foods or products that usually contain higher amounts of salt, sugar, and saturated fat, is part of the reason for these links.

Although TV is still a key part of the leisure time of many people, there are now many other types of screens that compete for our attention. Computers, tablets , and smartphones comprise these.

If there is a correlation between prolonged TV watching and negative health effects, the question arises: Does this correlation also refer to other screened devices being used excessively?

Chris Wharton, assistant dean of innovation and strategic initiatives at the College of Health Solutions of Arizona State University in Phoenix, was the corresponding study author.

“A lot of screen time-related literature has primarily focused on television. But with the advancement of all these other types of devices that people use throughout the day, we wanted to see how health behaviors and factors are associated with a variety of screen-based devices.”

Wharton and the team created an 18-question survey and sent it to 978 adults who owned a TV and at least one other device with a screen in the United States.

The researchers had 926 answers, after excluding some respondents for incorrectly filling in the survey.

The survey measured:

  • the amount of time each person spent on their devices
  • their diet
  • the quality and quantity of their sleep
  • their sense of stress and healthiness
  • how physically active they were
  • what their body mass index (BMI) was

The team categorised the screen time of the participants as light, moderate, or heavy use.

Heavy use meant worse health outcomes

The study found that individuals who found heavy use of screened devices had the worst health-related features and dietary habits, i.e. those who had a median screen time of 17.5 hours per day.

These consumers tended to consume less fruits and vegetables, as well as more fast food and sweets. They also appeared to get the least physical activity, get the least sleep, have the worst sleep quality, and experience the greatest perceived stress (compared with those with light or moderate screen use).

The researchers also found that there were also correlations with diet and health characteristics associated with overuse of various types of devices.

People with heavy TV and smartphone use said that they had worse dietary patterns and health characteristics than people who spent a lot of time in front of computers, tablets, or devices connected to a TV.

We’re engaging with the media in many different ways, and in mobile ways, as Wharton notes. And heavy users have been involved in a lot of fast food consumption through many of these devices. So the convenience of (screen use) seems to be linked to fast food convenience.

The team also found that poor dietary habits and rises in self-perceived stress were correlated with watching several episodes of a show or several different shows in quick succession.

Is there a causal relationship?

While the study established correlations between screen time and health effects, it is not clear exactly how or why this occurs.

For example, when watching TV for an excessive amount of time could be a marker of sedentary activity, which, in turn, could worsen the health of a person, it could also be more likely to spend more time in front of screens for those with worse health.

For the authors of the report, the findings indicate that there may be “a constellation of multiple factors adversely affecting wellbeing, maybe differentially by screen type.”

They therefore call for more research to build on their findings and decide what kind of association might exist between screen time, the use of various screened devices, and health outcomes.

For Wharton, given the physical distance of individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic, the results are particularly important.

“I worry when people say, ‘ Now is the time to re-up your Netflix subscription. What else are you going to do? “Wharton says. “I would flip that on its head and say, ‘Oh my gosh, now is the time to think about all the things to do other than sit in front of screens.’”

COVID really reflects on this in a crystal-clear way, that our lives are completely mediated by screens. They were before, and they are now, in particular. I think it’s a good time to think about what a healthy but technologically plugged-in life could look like where screens aren’t the only way in which we interact and do everything in our life, but instead are just a small side component of everything else that we do, ”he adds.

“We’re nowhere near such a conclusion, but I think we need to get there because screens have come to rule us, and they’re driving our wellbeing into real problems.”