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Are you suffering from screen brain?

The science & research behind too much screen time. And how to avoid the negative effects.

I recently read about a Hawaiian getaway that comes with a catch.

It’s described online as “hosted on a traditional nineteenth-century Hawaiian ranch, situated on Oahu’s north shore, close to some of the most famous surfing beaches in the world.” The trip, which includes “daily surfing and yoga sessions, guided Hawaiian culture walks and creative workshops as well as mindfulness practice and body treatments,” is set for November.

Bring your swimsuit and sunscreen — but not your smartphone. This vacay is a digital detox retreat designed to separate screen addicts from their electronic devices for a few days. It’s run by Time To Log Off, a British organization whose website says it’s “spearheading the movement to disconnect regularly from digital devices and reconnect with the world offline.”

That may sound a little extreme, but so do many of the statistics on screen time habits.

According to figures compiled by Time To Log Off, the average British adult checks their smartphone 150 times per day and spends eight hours and 41 minutes per day on screens such as smartphones, computers, tablets, video games and TVs.

A 2016 Nielsen study found Americans spend almost half a day — 10 hours and 39 minutes — consuming media on various screens every single day. In a 2014 poll by Ipsos and Google, the average Canadian smartphone user reported spending about seven hours per day. The researchers said that’s 86 per cent of their free time spent looking at screens on devices like TVs, phones, computers and e-readers.

What is all that screen time doing to us? And what can (or should) we do to make sure we don’t go overboard with it?

Digital damage

Most research involving screen time has focused on how video games affect children. Now, more scientists are finding evidence that various kinds of digital screens could have harmful effects on the bodies and brains of adults.

For starters, it has been suggested there is a growing connection between device use and eyestrain. That alone can be causing damaging effects on our minds, bodies and cognitive skills. In 2016, University of California researchers who studied 653 adult smartphone users concluded that “longer average screen time was associated with poor sleep quality and less sleep overall.”

Adding more grief to the story, excess screen time can literally be a pain in the neck. Doctors say ‘tech neck’ pain stems from repeatedly looking down at a phone or computer, which places an extra 50 lbs of pressure on your neck each time you lower your head.

Brain drain

Spending a lot of time viewing digital screens can also mess with our brains. A 2014 UK study suggested that people who often multitask on smartphones, laptops and other devices have a lower density of grey matter in the part of the brain that governs cognitive and emotional control.

McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin has also cited various research pointing to digital screen multitasking as a cause of low attention span, mental exhaustion, disorientation, anxiety, stress, aggression and impulsive behaviour. He notes that according to one experiment, “(if) you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, (it) can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points.”

How much is too much?

The Canadian Paediatric Society recently updated its guidelines for children, recommending no screen time for kids under the age of two and limiting it to one hour per day for kids aged two to five.

Although there are no such guidelines for adults, you can try to become more aware of how much time you spend on screens. Once you’ve done that, you can try to manage your screen habits better.

Tools & tips to rid your screen addictions

Of course, in this tech-mad world, there is a lot of technology out there to monitor and manage tech screen time.

RescueTime and BreakFree are just two of many apps that let you track how much time you spend on your phone or computer. Once you can see which apps, callers or websites are your biggest time wasters, the app allows you to temporarily block or set time limits for them.

If you want to turn your Mac computer into a basic word processor and eliminate all the other distractions that come with computer time, try WriteRoom. This app blocks views of email, your browser and other intrusions from your screen so all you can focus on is writing.

If your phone or computer screen is keeping you awake at night, apps like f.lux or Night Shift might help. They automatically adjust your screen to the time of day, emitting sunny brightness in the morning and softer, soothing tones in the evening.

There are even more non-tech ways to curb screen addiction. Check email only a couple of times a day instead of every few minutes. And then stop checking email after work or on weekends. (Just don’t forget to let everyone know by setting up an email auto-reply.)

Try to remove mobile devices from your bedroom. Charge them in another room, and stop using your smartphone as an alarm clock. Since 80 per cent of people say the first thing they do every morning is check their smartphone, then getting an alarm clock — and getting the smartphone out of your bedroom — would likely cut back your screen time.

The folks at Time To Log Off also recommend a digital diet, which means using digital devices for five days a week and going screen-free for the other two days (usually the weekend).

Toronto-based company Creative Niche makes its staff and managers take a screen break every single workday. Each day at 2:30 p.m., everyone in the office has to spend 15 to 20 minutes doing something — anything — that doesn’t involve a screen. CEO Mandy Gilbert said that since her firm introduced this daily screen break in 2015, they have “seen an increase in productivity, efficiency, collaboration and even innovation.”

The ultimate screen time detox, however, is probably that Hawaiian ranch near the ocean. But if that incredible screen-free adventure isn't in your budget, Camp Reset offers a three-day digital detox at a 150-acre campground near Orillia, Ontario. The 2017 summer excursion just ended, but you’ve got almost a full year to sign up for their 2018 detox.

Camp Reset’s website describes it as “one part reliving the glory days of camp and one part break from your never-ending notifications. Devices be damned — we want fun, freedom and campfires.”

So pack some marshmallows. But ditch that mobile device.

Up Next: Make sure to keep healthy and feel good at the office with these 10 tech tips.

10 tech tips for health & well-being at the office

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with ITBusiness.ca, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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