New research warns that screen use significantly increased among adults during the COVID-19 lockdowns and has continued at a high rate since, highlighting the need for Government guidance.
The findings are the first outcome of the New Uses of Screens in Post-Lockdown Britain study, led by the University of Leeds in collaboration with Leeds Trinity University. The research investigated the lived experiences of British adults and how their use of screen technologies changed as a result of the pandemic.
A survey of 500 UK adults and 20 interviews, funded by Research England, revealed that half of respondents now look at screens for 11 hours or more a day, and more than a quarter look at screens for 14 hours or more a day.
More than half of the participants said that they used screens more often than they did pre-pandemic. One in four people said their screen time had increased at work, and one in two were using screens for leisure activities more than they did before the pandemic.
The study’s Principal Investigator, Rafe Clayton, from Leeds’ School of Media and Communication, said: “The COVID-19 lockdowns have understandably transformed our relationship with screens and the role that they play in our personal and professional lives. There are many benefits to using screens, however this needs to be balanced with an awareness of the risks of screen usage so people have the knowledge to better manage their screen time.”
The research also analysed the link between screen use and health and found that negative health impacts are perceived to be common. Participants noted a broad range of physical and mental health issues that they identified as being connected to the use of screens. These include eye strain, headaches, fatigue, less motivation, social anxiety and a decline in their attention span.
Most of the respondents said that screen time had a negative impact on their health, with 40% having experienced negative physical side effects.
While many of the interviewees understand the advantages of screens, our study has highlighted that it is difficult for them to recognise when it becomes a disadvantage to them.
The likelihood of experiencing negative health effects increased the longer that people looked at screens: 93% of negative health impacts occurred in those looking at screens for six or more hours each day, and those using screens for more than nine hours a day were significantly more likely to experience negative health impacts.
He added: “While many of the interviewees understand the advantages of screens, our study has highlighted that it is difficult for them to recognise when it becomes a disadvantage to them and they often wait for the onset of physical symptoms before self-regulating their behaviour.”
Currently, there are no Government guidelines on screen use for adults in the UK. The study found that participants felt they would benefit from further guidance to give them the tools they needed to make informed decisions about their screen exposure.
As the use of screens continues to be integral to work and leisure in the UK in a post-lockdown society, the study’s authors are calling for national guidance for adults.
Whilst no amount of screen exposure can be considered risk-free, statistical evidence from the study indicates that, alongside taking regular breaks, limiting overall screen use to under six hours a day and avoiding regularly using screens for more than nine hours a day would reduce the majority of negative health outcomes.
“There is a clear ask from the public for Government guidance on screen usage, and the evidence suggests that having a number of hours that they should consider not exceeding would be beneficial. This may be particularly important when it comes to safeguarding vulnerable adults.
“As the majority of negative health impacts occur after six hours of screen usage, the Government may want to consider issuing guidance which encourages people to limit their screen time to under six hours a day, and to try avoid screen exposure that regularly exceeds nine hours a day.”
The Government offers guidelines to help us with many aspects of our health – with screens playing a prevalent role in most people’s lives, it’s time to make such guidance available.
Professor Carmen Clayton, from the Institute of Childhood and Education at Leeds Trinity University, was Co-Investigator. She said: “As our work, education and home habits see the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to have readily available guidelines to help people regulate their screen time.
“We now know that many people only adjust their screen usage when they experience negative side effects. The Government offers guidelines to help us with many aspects of our health, and with screens playing a prevalent role in most people’s lives, it’s time to make such guidance available.”
The research is the first in a series of briefing reports which will provide essential insights into the under-researched area of screen usage in the COVID-19 recovery.
The study has also identified that certain groups are unequally impacted by exposure to screens, including those from ethnic minorities, women and higher earners. The next stage of research will be to obtain further insights into these areas and discover how various groups are impacted by different screen devices.
The New Uses of Screens in Post-Lockdown Britain study has been undertaken within the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, funded by the Research England Policy Support Fund 2021-22. The research will present a series of briefing reports. Download or view the full policy brief: UK screen use in 2022: A need for guidance (PDF)