Screen time use sparks discussion over how much is too much

Though sedentary behavior raises cause for concern, especially during the pandemic, experts agree that setting too many boundaries for students can have negative outcomes.

Students love their screen time, especially those who have a passion for video games.

Days can quickly blur into nights and vice-versa when children or teens get wrapped up in a Minecraft build, try to destroy a League of Legends nexus, or just replay game after NBA2K game on their consoles.

Burnout is something educators, coaches, and parents have been monitoring since remote learning and the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted schedules. But should they be concerned?

One of the great modern-day debates – Are kids spending too much time on their devices? – has taken on significant relevance with students largely stuck at home.

“Indeed, there is a concern for students spending excessive amounts of time on their computers, whether that be to complete schoolwork, leisure (consuming media) or competitive gameplay,” says Haylesh Patel, esports exercise physiologist for the University of California, Irvine. “The activity of computer usage or screen time is sedentary by its nature, and there is a body of scientific literature that shows the negative effects of increased sedentary time upon the body.”

Dell’s Adam Garry: Strategies for ensuring screen time is a win-win for faculty and students

For students involved in esports, the past few months have provided an Atlas-like litmus test – having to balance the many virtual hours they would normally game, alongside having to maintain social media connections and take classes online.

“The high-performing esports collegiate population that I work with, on average I record somewhere between 10-14 hours of total sedentary time, excluding sleeping,” Patel says. “College students, in general, tend to have some of the worst sleep in terms of total hours of sleep and quality of sleep. Theses college students also must manage their commitments such as high academic workload, playing at a high level in their respective game, socializing with friends/family, and then taking care of themselves.”

However, Patel cautions educators and parents to not read too much into those patterns. Being able to connect with friends while relaxing and enjoying the games also have their benefits.

“I think that this is a time of opportunity for children to strengthen existing relationships with their peers using technology and create new connections, remotely, with those that they may not have engaged with offline,” he says. “This is also not purely through playing online games, it can be just through communicating using social media, or while working on a remote class project together. Without a doubt, we are all going through this pandemic in different ways and it is healthy to talk about experiences, providing our perspective on how we feel during this time. We may be physically isolated from our friends and families, but this does not mean that we must be socially distant (remotely) with them.”

Laurie Boyer, Magnet Outreach and Retention Specialist for St. Lucie Public Schools in Florida, agrees.

“Typically, it is good to keep a balance with screen time and the rest of the day,” she says. “However, we have to realize that during the Covid-19 quarantine, screen time is the only way for students to connect with their peers and friends. They have their school work to complete online for distance learning and then they are longing for social interaction with students their own age.”

Screen time and the 20-20-20 rule

How much screen time is too much? In short, there is no simple answer.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization had recommended that children ages 6-10 have no more than 1-1.5 hours of screen time each day, while children 11-13 can have up to 2 hours, with no guidelines for those over 13. But during the pandemic, the AAP has simply advised that “limits are important.” The actual average screen time a teen spends online per day, not including school work, is … seven hours.

“Screen time is a tricky subject because parents and teachers want to lean towards a rule around time, which may be more appropriate for children 5 and younger,” says James O’Hagan, Director of Virtual Learning for the Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin. “For children older than 5, it is more appropriate to consider four basic guiding principles to decide if screen time is worthwhile:  1. Is the activity engaging? 2. Is there critical thinking taking place? 3. Is the activity allowing for creativity? 4. What is the context of the activity?”

Realistically, that’s not likely to change, so O’Hagan has outlined some guidance on both his Academy of Esports podcast and in a video he has posted on YouTube video called Four Minutes of Screen Time. One of the tried-and-true pieces of advice he has is the 20/20/20 rule, popularized by Dr. Jeff Anshell, a specialist in “vision ergonomics.” O’Hagan says, “For every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away (and not another screen!). It helps to keep down eye strain.”

Nate Meeker, who runs the esports program at the University of Akron in Ohio, has spoken worldwide on the issue of screen time. He says his program does not have limitations for students on their own time, but it does limit practices, video-on-demand review sessions and matches to 15 hours a week – and that has remained the same since the school was shut down. Because he has remained in close contact with players, he can monitor their achievements and also their struggles.

“We do track students’ progress academically and physically – if either of those two factors shows a negative trend, we back the students off of playtime until they make progress towards the goals that we have set for them,” Meeker says. “Burnout not only affects their in-game and team performance but also affects how they are doing in school.

“Typically, if a member of one of our teams is burning themselves out on a particular game, we may have them take a step back for a few weeks, or even a semester while we bring a substitute in for them. That allows them to refocus on school, their own life, and often brings a renewed passion for the game when they do come back to play.”

The importance of wellness … and avoiding the grind

Patel urges faculty and parents to see beyond the amount of screen time and focus on the overall well-being of students, especially esports players.

“It is vitally important that esports athletes maintain their health and wellness,” he says. “This is not only for the short-term effects that it has on their gameplay and performance but also for their long-term health. We are all well-aware of the known positive benefits that performing regular exercise has on the body, from its effects on our cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) to improving and maintaining our muscles and bones.

“Largely overlooked and more importantly for esports athletes, are the amazing effects that regular physical activity has on our cognition, how our brain functions. There is a multitude of changes that occur in the brain that influence our memory, reaction time, mood, and even how we deal with stressful situations. And it does not take much to stimulate the body enough to elicit these changes; even a brisk walk around the block can have a positive effect on cognition.”

Bethany Pyles, a coaching coordinator for the North America Scholastic Esports Federation (NASEF), says there are strategies coaches can use to help athletes get the most out of their games while not overdoing it.

“Our coaches work to educate players on the value of routine and deliberate practice,” she says. “In doing so, we aim to provide an alternative to the ‘grind’ mentality that is prevalent in amateur esports and competitively ranked environments.”

Pyles says coaches can begin sessions by facilitating a warm-up ritual, such as ‘pause and breathe’ exercises, wrist and back stretches, and checking-in to gauge the climate of a team to “see how individuals are feeling that day and adjust lessons accordingly.” A typical high school session might last 1.5-2 hours. Coaches help students identify areas in their strategies, mechanics, communication, and analysis that could use improvement. Students then learn to set specific goals for themselves.

“The alternative to playing without this type of mentorship typically leads students to believe that the more they play the better results they will gain or ‘grinding’ for extensive hours each day,” she says. “However, giving students some guidelines can help them improve faster in smaller chunks of time.”

One way to ensure to potentially mitigate the physical impacts of too much screen time – is to fall back on exercises that a traditional sport might offer. Patel points out that screen time does not just affect the eyes, but the entire body.

“I like to encourage my collegiate students to have a structure to their game time, like that of a physical sport,” he says. “Generally, you would warm-up prior to playing sport by warming up the body and specific muscle groups and doing some mobility exercises. Then after play would cool down and stretch the muscle groups that you have just used, helping to promote flexibility and prevent injury in the future.”

Keeping screen time in perspective

Is the issue of screen time simply overblown? Are some educators, advisors, directors, and parents making too much of what seems to be a good thing for students?

Mimi Ito, Director of the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine and Executive Director of Connected Camps, notes that “strict screen time rules, monitoring, and surveillance are not always the best strategies, which is why even the American Association of Pediatrics has moved away from them.

“In fact, being fearful, restrictive, and controlling of kids’ media use can backfire as it breeds a climate of mistrust, and kids learn to operate in secrecy. Teens generally describe parental surveillance as one of the biggest threats to their online privacy. Instead, parenting that promotes trust and disclosure may be more effective for keeping abreast of a child’s activities both online and offline.”

Patel adds one important recommendation for parents and those who run esports programs: “The framing is important as you do not want them to associate the break-in screen time as a punishment, rather just another activity for them to do during the day.”

As students head toward the summer, with likely more changes on the horizon, experts note it is important that they keep a well-balanced lifestyle – that includes game time, socializing online, and physical activity.

“Students at many universities are now in the process of closing out this chaotic spring semester,” says Armand Buzzelli, Director of Recreation at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. “Once the semester ends, they need to find that “other important activity” that will make them put down that controller. We need to continue to monitor and promote physical activity and wellness in our student-athletes more than ever.”