Screens. They can be our best friends. After all, they’re instant sources of education and entertainment. They help us communicate and learn. They’ve been so vitally important throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as lifelines to friends and families as well as virtual classrooms.

But screens can also be our worst enemies. They become addictive as we rely on them instead of other people. They can be used to bully from afar. They track our activity, and they know us personally. And on top of all that, they can be bad for us physically, mentally, and emotionally if we don’t limit the time we spend on screens. Especially kids. This is what’s called screen fatigue.

The key is to find a happy medium and to balance screen time with other activities to reduce screen fatigue. Let’s take a look at how to do that.

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What the Data Show Us

Research shows that recreational screen time among kids ages 10 to 14 doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. That screen time amounted to 7.7 hours per day—not including any time they were online for school. When you factor that in, most kids were staring at a screen upwards of 15 hours each day! It’s no wonder so many children are suffering from screen fatigue.

What Exactly is Screen Fatigue

There are a couple of different ways to look at the term “screen fatigue.” A non-medical viewpoint suggests that screen fatigue is the feeling one has after staring at a screen for too much time. Or it can be considered a blanket term for the inordinate amount of time kids—especially teens—spend in front of a screen. But there is a medical definition of screen fatigue that has real consequences on the body and mind.

According to the London Vision Clinic, screen fatigue occurs when, due to extended periods of looking at a screen without a break, the muscles in and around the eyes become strained and exhausted. This happens because, when we look at screens (no matter the size), our eyes are always refocusing on the small pixels that create images and text. The blue light from digital screens, glare, and reduced blinking contribute to that eye strain. And that eye strain can result in headaches, neck pain, and overall body fatigue.

But that’s not the end of it. While screen fatigue can make your entire body feel drained, when you get into bed for a good night’s sleep, you’re probably wide awake and have trouble falling asleep. Some other symptoms of eye or screen fatigue include:

  • Blurred vision
  • Itchy, burning, dry, or watery eyes
  • Enhanced light sensitivity
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Extra light sensitivity

And, in turn, these types of symptoms can lead to:

  • Sleep issues, which then result in:
    • Poor academic performance
    • Decreased reading ability
  • Less physical activity, which causes:
    • Weight problems
    • Negative self-image
  • Other problems such as:
    • Less time spent with family
    • A diminished ability to relax or have fun without a screen
    • Fear of missing out (FOMO)

It’s always a good idea to monitor your child for any noticeable changes, including:

  • Increasingly isolated behavior
  • Changes in mood and anxiety levels
  • A new group of friends
  • Less enjoyment from activities that they used to love

These could be signs of depression or other emotional issues that should be addressed immediately.

Unfortunately, extra screen time is simply a reality for many kids—especially those who are still learning or participating in certain activities virtually. There is a way, however, to combat screen fatigue.

How to Alleviate Screen Fatigue

1. Limit Screen Time

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, kids ages 8 to 12 are on screens an average of four to six hours per day; that number jumps to nine hours for teens. That’s significantly higher than the screen time recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

  • Under 18 months: no screen time except video chatting
  • 18 months to 2 years: 1 hour per day of educational content, co-watching with adult
  • 3 to 5 years: 1 hour per day
  • 6 to 10 years: 1.5 hours per day
  • 11+ years: 2 hours per day

Two hours per day? Easier said than done, right? Especially considering most kids today are far exceeding those recommendations. Well, this is where some tough love/parenting comes into play. Set time limits on their devices for however long you feel is an appropriate amount of screen time. Kids will quickly learn the skill of time management as they’ll have to budget their hours throughout their day.

2. Get Them Involved in Non-Screen Activities

Whether it’s a local sports league, an after-school club, bike rides in the neighborhood with friends, or simply swapping an hour of screen time with a book, there are plenty of ways to get kids out of their digital trance—and have fun doing so. All kids, regardless of age, need a healthy dose of physical activity each day, so replacing after-school screen time with sports or play with friends is a win-win.

3. Make Certain Times Tech-Free

Similar to limiting screen time, establishing hard and fast screen-free times can help you better monitor and regulate your child’s time in front of a screen. For example, make family meals off-limits for devices. Establish a rule that demands all devices are turned off at least an hour before bedtime. Having a firm schedule (printed out for your child to follow) helps ensure a reduction in your child’s screen time and keeps them engaged with the family during the times you value most.

4. Share Screen Time

There are some who don’t even consider TV watching or video games as screen time—people are often of the mindset that screen time consists solely of YouTube videos, social media, and video chats on a phone or tablet. However, TV and video games are no different—aside from the fact that they generally use much larger screens. These count as screen time as well, but sharing that time as a family can be a lot of fun. Think Friday family movie nights, a weekly Madden NFL battle, or regular FaceTime calls with relatives. Or research a cool project online to work on together.

5. 20-20-20 Rule

You may have heard of the 20-20-20 Rule—the idea is that for every 20 minutes you’re using a screen, you should look at something that’s 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This exercise is designed to ensure you take frequent breaks from the screen so you can refresh and refocus your eyes in order to reduce eye strain. While this is a quick and effective approach, simply getting up and walking away from the screen for a minute or two will have the same effect. Either way, these approaches give your eyes the frequent breaks that they need.

It’s Not ALL Bad

All of this isn’t to say that screens are evil—quite the contrary, in fact. Screens—whether they’re phones, tablets, or TVs play a very useful, and even vital, role in how we live today. Can you imagine looking through your closet to find a 20-lb phone book so you can search for a reputable plumber when Google is at your fingertips and can find 50 of them in a split second? Wouldn’t you rather FaceTime or Zoom with the grandparents instead of a phone call?

We can learn plenty of new skills through YouTube videos, we can connect to people we might never have had the opportunity to connect with before, we have a world of information at our fingertips. We simply need to limit the time we spend with our screens, not abuse it—especially our children.

Screen fatigue, though a recent phenomenon, is real and it can be serious if left unaddressed. Talk to your kids about the amount of time they’re spending on their devices, and work together to create a plan that reduces that time and alleviates screen fatigue.

About the Author:

David Engle