It’s not hard to find information online about the physical effects of screen time on both children and adults. Looking at a screen generally does not involve a great deal of physical activity (unless perhaps you’re playing on a Wii or something similar), and human beings were never designed to sit still for long periods of time. A large part of the problem is that while people are staring at a screen, they’re not mobile. And more often than not, their posture is bad.
Recent evidence has shown significant increases in short sightedness amongst children. Terms like “computer vision syndrome” have become more prevalent, and more and more young people need glasses to assist their vision from an early age. In fact the research tells us that the eyesight of up to 90% of people who spend hours every day in front of a screen is negatively affected by this activity – that’s HUGE!
A long time ago now I first wrote about the physical effects of screen time, so what’s with the “whole new perspective”? It has something to do with the zen saying: “To know and not to do is not yet to know”. Let me explain!
Long Term Back Pain – Is This You?
For a long time now I’ve suffered from a bad back. So what? Nothing too interesting there; every second person has a bad back these days and most of us go through the cycle of visiting physio’s and chiro’s and getting the occasional massage. For most people the aim is just to get out of pain as quickly as possible.
A while ago I met a yoga practitioner and had 5 one-on-one sessions with him. During this time he was able to diagnose what was going wrong, and each week he gave me more yoga exercises to practice at home. The exercises had to be done slowly and mindfully (ie I was supposed to clear my mind of all else, a great exercise in itself in relaxation), and he promised me that if I did these exercises every day, the result would be that I’d be able to move about freely pretty much all the time.
I have to say, the investment of time and money in this yoga practitioner was possibly one of the best investments I’ve ever made. I am quite disciplined, particularly when it comes to avoiding significant pain, and there haven’t been many days at all that I haven’t done the exercises he prescribed. And just as he promised, it has helped me enormously. Even when my back flares up from time to time, I’m generally able to “yoga myself” out of pain. Pretty cool.
In the last few months or so, suddenly my body seems to have fallen apart. Although I’ve been relatively fit for years and years (I have a black belt in karate and train regularly – or try to!), I’m finding it increasingly difficult to move first thing in the morning. My fingers don’t move properly, so I’m unable to make a fist until much later in the day. It takes me forever to kneel down on the ground, and then even longer to get back up again. And often a part of my body (which can change regularly) is in chronic pain.
I’m 39 years of age, so not exactly “old” I wouldn’t say! Yet my body is now behaving as if it’s closer to 69 years of age!
What’s the main reason for this?
Simple: years upon years of poor posture, so that now my body is finally screaming out to me that enough is enough.
As my yoga practitioner taught me, unfortunately most of us are not very good at listening to our bodies, which are brilliant at guiding us if only we stop talking and start listening.
Your body will tell you if you’re not looking after it properly by communicating pain. The problem is that when it talks quietly (giving us warning signs) we tend to ignore it. Consequently it gets to breaking point, where after the body has been dismissed on the first few attempts it eventually takes charge, giving you no option but to listen.
It’s no different to having the flu. Your body knows it needs to rest to recuperate so it makes you feel tired. It also knows it needs to use its energy to fix your body without having to work on processing food, so you don’t feel hungry – escalating to the point that maybe you can’t keep the food down even if you try. Clever when you look at it this way.
What Does Poor Posture Mean?
Last week I visited a friend of mine, Dr Gerry Rosanove, who is a chiropractor/osteopath/yoga practitioner. He’s been practicing for about 28 years and he knows his stuff inside and out. He’s seen a LOT of patients in his time.
These are the comments that came from his mouth on my initial visit with him:
“Wow Ruth, you’re amazing!”
“I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“There’s just no movement there at all…wow!”
Yep…it seems I’m pretty “special” and “amazing”…and it turns out that’s not always a good thing! My husband always tells me I’m an over-achiever – I figure if something’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing right!
It seems that the effects of poor posture are far-reaching. Since all the muscles in the body are connected, a bad back and neck can affect most other parts of your body, right down to your fingers. Damn it!
Dr Gerry showed me how our head weighs more than it should the more forward it is. Apparently, if your head is directly above your shoulders (where it’s supposed to be) it weighs about 5kgs. But the more our neck leans forward, the more weight there is in our head. In fact when your neck is too far forward it can weigh as much as 22kgs – more than 4 times as much as it should! This then understandably puts undue pressure on the rest of your body, and things start falling apart.
Poor posture has stopped my neck from being able to move properly. It stops my ankles and other joints from moving freely. It stops my fingers from forming a fist (not good for karate!), and it means I’m not able to lift heavy objects. Basically, it is now affecting most aspects of my physical life.
What Caused The Poor Posture? You Guessed It!
For the last few years – actually make that about 18 years (how time flies when you’re having fun!) – I’ve spent the majority of my working hours sitting down in front of a computer. Like most people, in order to see what’s on the screen more easily my head has been closer to the screen than my body. Most of us do this and the thing is that you don’t realize you’re doing it. It’s only when eventually you feel pain from doing it for so long that you realize something’s wrong, and by then it’s too late; the damage is done.
Why I’m Now More Concerned Than Ever About The Physical Effects Of Screen Time
Here’s the interesting thing: I don’t actually spend much time hunched over an electronic device such as an i-pad, tablet or phone. I would say I spend less time than the average adult using these devices. And I definitely spend a lot less time than the average child/tween/teen engaging in this sort of activity.
With so many young children spending hours upon hours day after day looking at a little screen, I’m more concerned than ever about the physical effects this will have on them in future. While they’re young, fit and healthy they won’t realize there’s a problem, and once they feel the effects a lot of damage will have been done. And while it’s taken decades for me to feel this way, with so much more screen time these days our kids will be feeling the effects at a much younger age.
Other Factors Involved
I’ll admit that there is another key factor involved in my current physical condition, namely stress. There’s no doubt that stress can have physical, mental and emotional effects on us, and who isn’t stressed from time to time? Many of us are stressed out most of the time!
I think that unfortunately it’s fairly safe to presume that our kids will suffer from stress for much of their lives. It’s more difficult now than it ever has been for most young people to get into a position where they can support themselves on their own two feet, without needing help from their parents. And despite technology supposedly making us more efficient and therefore allowing us more free time, nobody seems to be experiencing much time freedom these days!
What scares me now is the first hand knowledge that:
Excessive Screen Time + Stress = Poor Posture + Major Physical Health Issues
I definitely don’t want my children – or yours – to live with ongoing pain from their twenties or thirties onwards; although this may be common or relatively “normal”, it is simply not how life is meant to be!
How To Prevent Your Children Suffering From The Physical Effects Of Screen Time
There are several ways to prevent or at least limit the physical effects of screen time on your children.
Limit The Amount Of Time Spent Online
Obviously this is a starting point, and it’s easier with some children than others. Many children seem to have difficulty thinking of things to do with their time that don’t involve screens – it’s their automatic fallback option when they have some free time on their hands.
Here are five ways you can help limit the amount of time your children spend using screens (jump on my next webinar to find out how you can get way more help here:
- Find alternative activities for them to do that don’t involve screens, and encourage them to use their imaginations to come up with their own games to play. If you can balance out their physical play time with their sedentary play time (ie for every hour they play outside they can play for an hour inside) this works well in many families
- Set rules in place for how much screen time they’re allowed, with rewards for doing the right thing and disincentives to discourage them from overdoing it (best for your children to come up with the rewards and disincentives that mean the most to them)
- Be a good example for your children to follow – they’ll mimic your behaviour to an extent whether you like it or not! If your head is buried in your phone or you’re often glued to the TV set, it’s not surprising that your children will want to do the same
- Explain the physical effects of screen time to your children so that they understand the need to limit the time they spend in this way
- Devote as much quality time to enjoy with your children as possible. I totally get that everyone is crazy busy these days, our lives seem to be so hectic (I’m no different to you in this way!). But believe it or not, your children will actually value the time they can spend with you over and above screen time on their own
Ensure They Have A Break At Least Every Hour
When your children are playing online or using social media, they tend to be so involved in what they doing that they’ll continue for long periods of time without moving. They’re likely to be in a position that doesn’t reflect good posture, and sadly this soon becomes “normal”. It then takes real effort to change this habit, and what should then be “normal posture” feels very abnormal!
It’s very helpful to encourage your children to take regular breaks away from their screens, even for a minute or two. This helps their eyes to re-focus for long distance vision, and a walk and stretch will do their back, neck, shoulder and leg muscles the world of good. Taking a few long deep breaths will also do wonders for their well-being.
The easiest way to make this happen is to have your children set alarms or timers every hour or half hour for themselves to remind them to walk away from their device. You’ll need to have explained to them the benefits of doing this (as mentioned above) so they understand the reasoning behind it – making it much more likely they’ll actually take notice of the alarms when they go off. And once they get used to it, it will just become an everyday habit that they will thank you for in years to come! (Of course this tip is not just for your children :-))
Pay Attention To Ergonomics
Traditionally when you think of ergonomics, you picture someone sitting on an office chair in front of a computer. Whilst some children do engage in this activity, if they’re looking at a screen then chances are more often than not they’re glued to a phone, tablet or an i-pad.
There’s actually a phrase known as ‘text neck’, where basically your head is tilted forward to look at a phone or similar device, usually at about a 60-degree angle. I mentioned earlier how that affects the weight of your head and puts pressure on the rest of your body.
What to do about ‘text neck’? According to Clinical Specialist in Sports and Orthopedic Physical Therapy Ryan Balmes, it can be as simple as holding your phone differently. Ideally the screen should be at eye level, as opposed to bending your neck to look down at it. This could include lying flat on the ground and holding the phone up high (although that would no doubt test the arm muscles pretty quickly!).
With a tablet or i-pad it’s best to put it upright on a table using a case designed for that purpose. Then you can implement old-fashioned ergonomic rules, such as setting up the screen again at eye level (phone books were always great tools for that, shame we don’t have these anymore!), and making sure your chair height is set so that your feet can rest flat on the floor.
Balmes also suggests turning your head slowly 10 times to each side every hour throughout the day. This would be a great exercise to encourage your children to do in the short break time when that alarm goes off every hour.
Another tip I’m using which has helped me a lot already is that I bought an office chair with a headrest. I am focusing on resting my head on the headrest as I type, as I know that if the back of my head isn’t touching the headrest then my neck is too far forward. Simple yet effective!
In Summary: Minimising The Physical Effects Of Screen Time
While your children may think you’re just “boring” carrying on about the physical effects of screen time (I’m pretty sure that’s how my children feel when I discuss it with them!), being a boring parent beats your children resigning themselves to a life with physical pain from their twenties or thirties onwards (for some it starts in their teens!). Unfortunately I’m in a position where my children do listen to what I have to say about this – even if it’s because they can see what my body is doing and they don’t want to end up the same way.
I’m not suggesting you have to be in pain yourself to get the message through, and I certainly hope you’re not in this situation! But whatever it takes, your children need to be proactive in order to prevent their screen time having a very negative effect on them physically in the future. And they need your guidance in this regard.
Hopefully you’ve found this article helpful as far as learning more about the physical effects of screen time. This is just one of the challenges I help parents with in terms of keeping their 5-12 year old children safe, healthy and balanced online. Feel free to register for my next webinar to find out more about how I can turn your fear into peace of mind when your children are online 🙂