By Samantha Marsh & Alex Muntz

A healthy digital diet is different for different people. We need to learn to listen for what our body and brain are telling us.

How much screen time is too much? It’s a question we all want the answer to. But it’s like asking, how much sugar is too much? We know that sugar can affect our weight, teeth, mood, and energy levels. But how much is too much?

Well, that depends.

Some kids bounce off the walls after one lolly, whereas others are fine after a whole bag. Diabetic? You’d be wise to watch your sugar intake. Meticulous about your oral health? A little sugar is probably OK. And where is that sugar coming from? A bag or an apple?

See, the sugar issue is super-complicated. And almost impossible to put a value on – at least at the population level.

But knowing how much sugar is OK for you as an individual doesn’t need to be. If you pay attention to your body, it will tell you. We come with an in-built internal messaging system that constantly sends information to help us maintain a healthy equilibrium. We feel hungry when we need to eat and full when we need to stop eating.

We run into problems when we fail (either consciously or unconsciously) to tune in and listen to this messaging. And if we ignore the messaging long enough, the message will become louder. Then others start sending us the message. Then our mirror and our scales. Then our doctor.

But back to the original question: how much screen time is too much? For the little ones, the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests no screen time under the age of two and less than an hour per day for those under five. We think that’s reasonable (not easy, but reasonable). For everyone else? In all honesty, we don’t know.

As with sugar, it’s impossible to quantify how much is too much for all individuals within a population. And when it comes to digital technology, we are all individuals. We have different interests, experiences, histories, cultures, lifestyles, relationships, family structures, strengths, and weaknesses. We view different content. We engage differently with that content. And we are impacted differently by that engagement – some of us are more vulnerable, others more resilient. So how could we have a single ‘screen time’ rule that captures all these differences? We couldn’t.

So instead of seeking that elusive rule that is somehow appropriate for all of us, we might want to ask ourselves a different question: “How healthy is my digital diet?”

Hardly any dieting guideline is more sensible and succinct than Michael Pollan’s famous “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”. Like food, maintaining a healthy screen diet can likely be summed up similarly:

Use digital technology. Not too much. Mostly positive content.

It might not be as elegant as Pollan’s version, but it conveys the same essential message: it needn’t be complicated.

Use digital technology

It seems that every time someone points out the downfalls of tech, they are labelled anti-technology or Luddites.

Luddites, by the way, weren’t technophobes but rather tech-savvy pioneers who were looking a little further down the road. They were skilled craftspeople who were at once able to use technology whilst being wary of its threat to their trade. They saw that new factory technologies created textiles of lower quality, resulting in lower wages, and undermining their families, towns, and regions. In short, they had their eyes wide open. So, it’s probably not a bad thing and probably not the insult people think it is.

Without a shadow of a doubt, technology is good. It is also bad. Being entirely for or against something takes a level of commitment and faith in the existence of an absolute truth that often researchers don’t have. We know the research, and we know the limitations of that research. We don’t have all the answers, and you should beware of people or companies that say they do. You should also beware of tech that makes promises that appear “too good to be true” – because they probably are just that. But based on research, experience, and common sense, we feel confident saying that some technology use is good. So, go ahead, use digital technology, but remember…

Not too much

While the impact of digital technology on humans is shrouded in uncertainty and plagued by unknowns, research in other fields provides us with more concrete evidence for what humans need to thrive. We’re talking about the heavy hitters: not sitting too much, exercising a bit (or a lot, up to you), spending time doing the things you love with the people you love, being outside, and sleeping. With few exceptions, excessive screen use interferes with all these things. So, use technology, just not so much that it interferes with life, and keep in mind this one last caution…

Mostly positive content 

It’s usually apparent what positive tech entails. It makes you feel good, or at least neutral, about yourself and other people. Turning it off doesn’t take too much willpower, and it can spark your interest and knowledge in constructive and healthy ways. It can be ‘educational’. It can even be ‘positive’ when it’s ‘negative’ – news is a good example of this (provided it’s also accurate). Just remember that too much of a good thing can also become a bad thing. So, if you’re YouTubing how to poach an egg, reading up on how to refinance your home, taking online university courses, or catching up with your sister in Europe, by all means, as you were.

But you might want to rethink your use of negative media. Negative media is often violent, offensive, inaccurate, addictive, or extreme. It may be one of these things, it may be all of them, or, crucially, it may be none of them. If non-violent, non-offensive, non-addictive, and non-extreme technology makes you feel bad about yourself or others, it’s still negative. Turn it off.

But what about pernicious screen use? The type that seems harmless at first but slowly, over time, turns more violent, more offensive, more inaccurate, more addictive, more extreme, or just more negative. It’s harder to spot, but there are warning signs. Have you stopped doing the things you once enjoyed? Have your beliefs, ideas, or values abruptly shifted? Have you started doubting yourself and what you stand for, or have you lost a sense of who you are? Are you suddenly at odds with the people you love and trust in your life? If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, the balance may have insidiously tipped in favour of negative screen use.

Your healthy digital diet 

It can be hard to resist the newest craze, the latest app, the trending hashtag, or hot scandal. FOMO (fear of missing out) is very real. So is boredom and being stuck inside. But despite what you may believe, you do have options, and switching off is one of them. Like with food, listen to what your internal messaging system tells you about your technology use. How are your relationships? How does your body feel? How do your eyes feel? How do you feel? Tune in. And then, if need be, tune out for a bit. Yes, the impact of tech on people is complicated, but the solution needn’t be. Use digital technology. Not too much. Mostly positive content.

This article was originally published on Newsroom and was republished with permission. For the original, click here.

Samantha Marsh is a Research Fellow in Social and Community Health at the University of Auckland. 

Alex Muntz is a Research Fellow Opthalmology at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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