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Sharp Health News

The link between screen time and health

Nov. 3, 2021

The link between screen time and health
Parents who worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens — on smartphones, playing video games or watching TV — have new evidence to back their claims that screen time is bad for you. In fact, it’s bad for everyone, adults included. Research shows that excessive media use can lead to health problems, including increased risk of obesity, cancer and diabetes.

“Technology use, whether it’s playing video games or watching TV, can increase the risk of chronic diseases,” says Dr. Patricio Guaiquil, a board-certified family medicine doctor affiliated with SharpCare Medical Group. “Recent studies show that as the time we spend on technology has increased, so too has the incidence of many chronic avoidable illnesses.”

The market research group Nielsen took a look at Americans’ TV watching and electronic media habits in 2018 and discovered Americans spend more than 11 hours per day interacting with screen-based media, up from nine and a half hours just four years ago. Nearly four hours of that time is spent on computers, smartphones and tablets, and nearly five hours of each day, on average, is spent watching television.

Digging into the data
That’s a lot of time being sedentary rather than active. Dr. Guaiquil shares a few recent studies that show how dangerous excessive media consumption can be.
 
  • A study out of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston found that adolescents who used electronic media six or more hours at night also demonstrated behaviors linked to obesity — unhealthy eating and sleeping less than kids who used media two hours or less each day.
     
  • Scientists in Melbourne, Australia looked at the risk factor for stroke related to the amount of time spent watching TV. They found that study participants who went on to have a stroke had significantly higher levels of TV viewing time than those who did not have a stroke.
     
  • Finally, experts concluded that prolonged sedentary TV viewing time was associated with increased risk of developing colorectal cancer before the age of 50, known as young-onset colorectal cancer. Diagnoses of the disease is increasing, with the American Cancer Society reporting a 51% increase in colorectal cancer among those under age 50 since 1994.
“The findings of these studies and others provide further evidence of the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle and avoiding prolonged sedentary electronic media use, whether that’s watching TV, playing video games or simply scrolling through your smartphone or tablet,” Dr. Guaiquil says.

Among older adults, past studies have also found a relationship between too much TV watching and an increased risk of poor cognitive performance, cardiovascular disease and death, even in those who are active.

Replacing screen time with physical activity
The good news is that you can make up for a lifetime of being too sedentary by kicking up your exercise for two straight years. Researchers say that a regimen of intensive exercise can improve the amount of oxygen your heart takes in and increase the flexibility of the heart muscle, which can lead to improved blood flow and decreased risk of heart failure.

The program should include the following:
 
Of course, replacing any amount of screen time with physical activity can make a difference. Consider taking a daily 30-minute walk or several three- to five-minute walks throughout the day; take the stairs whenever possible; stand up and move around every 30 minutes; and find activities — gardening, hiking, yoga — that incorporate physical activity.
 
Dr. Guaiquil also recognizes that technology, if used correctly, could have benefits to your health. These include:
  • Decreasing anxiety through mindfulness and meditation apps, such as Insight Timer.
  • Improved mental health through the cultivating of hobbies, such as watching cooking videos on YouTube.
  • Improved physical fitness using exercise apps or videos, such as the Body Project channel on YouTube.
  • Increased family bonding, especially for connecting with older generations, through video tools such as Zoom.
Dr. Guaiquil also recommends taking advantage of screen time limit alerts that are common on modern devices.
 
“In general, limiting the time spent watching TV or on other electronic devices, using that screen time to your health advantage, and leading a more active life can reduce your risk for disease,” Dr. Guaiquil says. “Decrease the amount of time you spend on electronics and other sedentary activities, and instead use that time to enjoy exercise and additional physical activity for better health.”

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute offers guidelines for the amount of physical activity you should get at every age. As always, talk to your doctor before initiating an exercise program.

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