Brief No.9, 10 March 2022. Rafe Clayton and Carmen Clayton.
The use of screens has become integral to our work and leisure in the UK. New research looking at UK adults’ use of screens during and after the coronavirus lockdowns has found a steep rise in total screen use. This was linked to perceived negative health impacts, with some groups being more vulnerable. Here we discuss the need for clear national guidance on screen use in the UK.
- A national survey of UK adults looked at their screen use pre-, during and post-lockdown.
- Screen use increased during the lockdowns and has continued at a higher level. 50% of UK adults now look at screens for 11 hours or more a day.
- 59% of study participants reported negative impacts on their health from looking at screens, with younger people, women and higher social grades being impacted most.
- 93% of negative health impacts occur in those who use screens for 6 hours or more a day.
- There are no national guidelines on screen limits, but people overwhelmingly want clear guidance.
UK screen use guidance
Current government policy sees screen use as a workplace concern, where it is covered to a limited degree by Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulations. However, there are no formal guidelines for total daily usage of screens, factoring in education or leisure use. Whilst the Chief Medical Officer provided some guidance for children in 2019 (Davies et al. 2019), no such guidance exist for adults.
This lack of guidance increasingly needs addressing since, as envisaged by the Government’s digital strategy, it is anticipated that people will be using technology and screens even more in the future. As digital technology permeates multiple aspects of our lives, some people may find themselves facing work and social pressure to use screens more, which may place vulnerable groups further at risk.
New uses of screens in post lockdown Britain
The New Uses of Screens in Post-Lockdown Britain (NUSPB) study surveyed 500 UK adults selected to be nationally representative for age, gender, marital status, presence of children in the household, socio-economic group, ethnicity and region. Twenty qualitative interviews were completed to gain a deeper understanding of the survey results. The research builds upon a wider body of data collected during the pandemic by the British Families in Lockdown study.
Increasing screen use
The NUSPB study found that British people are looking at screens to an increasing extent as a result of the pandemic, with 54% of British adults saying they now use screens more often than before. 1 in 4 people (27%) are now using screens more at work following the lockdown experiences of 2020-2021 and 1 in 2 adults (51%) are using screens for leisure more than they did pre-pandemic. As a result of these changes in behaviour, half of the UK adult population (50% of people) are looking at screens for a combined total of 11 hours or more each day. 28% of adults are looking at screens for a combined total of 14 hours or more a day.
In the interviews, many people say they simply have no choice, since their work demands that they spend long hours looking at screens. In addition to this, entertainment and communication in 2022 are commonly accessed via screens. Other recreational activities ranging from shopping, socialising, learning and general engagement with the wider world, are all commonly experienced positively through screen use and the internet. British adults find the ease and convenience of accessing the internet valuable and most interview participants felt that they could not function in every day society without using screens. A number of participants have also expressed a feeling that they were addicted to screens.
Health impacts of screen use
Our study found that negative health impacts are perceived to be directly associated with screen use by most adults.
- 59% of British adults have said that screen use has had a negative impact on their health.
Negative health impacts perceived to be from screens are common and affect more than half of participants; furthermore, the longer people look at screens, the more likely they are to complain of negative health impacts.
- 93% of negative health impacts occur in those who are exposed to screens for 6 hours or more each day.
- 75% of negative health impacts also occur in those who are exposed to screens for 9 hours or more each day.
Older generations seem affected least, with only 52% of over 55s suffering negative health impacts from screen use compared to 66% of 18-54 year olds. Women appear to be disproportionally affected by screens with 64% expressing negative health impacts compared to 54% of men. Those from higher social grades are also unequally impacted with 69% having experienced negative health impacts from screens compared to just 50% from lower social grades.
The health impacts identified in the NUSPB study are broad and varied, but have been shown to be largely consistent with those discussed in a range of existing literature. Physical health impacts reported included: Eye strain, headaches, body pain from posture, repetitive strain, putting on weight, and lack of exercise. Mental health impacts included: Less motivation, mood swings, socially anxious, hard to switch off, irritable, and losing attention span.
It is perhaps difficult for individuals to determine whether a negative health impact has been directly caused by screen use or if it is an exacerbation of a previously held condition. A limitation of this study is that we did not collect data regarding pre-existing health conditions that we could cross-reference. However, all the health conditions identified in this survey have been connected to screen use by the participants themselves.
The case for guidelines
Concerns about the health impacts of using screens are not new. Measures to limit exposure to screens in the workplace date back to the ‘Health and Safety Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Regulations’ of 1992, implemented in 1993 and amended in 2002. The HSE has historically promoted the message that no permanent damage to human health can be caused from screens (Unison 2010) and as recently as 2019 the UK Chief Medical Officer (CMO) stated that research is inconclusive in supporting “evidence-based guidelines on optimal amounts of screen use” (Davies et al. 2019). People are therefore given significant autonomy in terms of moderating their daily screen time at home, in education and at work.
Self-management (or self-regulation) relies on people having the ability and awareness to recognise and understand their limits, which may not always be the case. When the participants in this study were asked how they self-regulate screen time, they told us that they respond to symptoms as and when they present. Waiting for the onset of symptoms may not be an appropriate strategy, particularly for cared for and vulnerable adults and children.
This study asked British adults if they were aware of Government guidance on how much screen time is advised each day. Many of the interviewees expected or hoped that Government guidelines on limits to screen use existed and they were surprised to hear they did not. Despite most believing there either ‘are guidelines’ or ‘should be guidelines’, British adults currently feel unaware and unguided about how much screen time they should be exposing themselves to. In the absence of guidance, 1 in 6 British adults (17%) are currently looking at screens for a combined total of 16 hours or more each day.
British adults want guidelines on total screen use and evidence suggests that they would benefit from being given a number of hours that they should consider not exceeding. The strong recommendation of this study is to make such guidelines available.
Despite concerns that there is a lack of clinical evidence for direct causal relationships between screen time and certain medical conditions, there is a strong body of evidence to suggest that screen time overall should be limited (Hill et al. 2016, Madhav et al. 2017, Davies et al. 2019, Foster et al. 2020).
There are benefits to using screens (Davies et al. 2019) and nobody should feel dissuaded from using them. However, this should be balanced with an awareness of the risks. Screen use may be a problem if it interferes with sleep, exercise and personal interaction (Davies et al. 2019, Hill et al. 2016).
The more time a person spends looking at screens the more likely they are to experience negative impacts on physical and mental health (NUSPB 2022, Madhav et al. 2017). Our data indicates that the likelihood of experiencing negative health impacts occurs almost exclusively amongst those looking at screens for 6 hours or more each day. Health impacts are significantly more likely to be perceived by those who look at screens for 9 hours or more each day. As such, if public perceptions are correct: to alleviate negative health impacts, it may be valid to recommend that people limit their screen use to under 6 hours each day and to try avoiding combined screen exposure that regularly exceeds 9 hours a day.
About the authors
Rafe Clayton is the Principle Investigator for New Uses of Screens in Post-Lockdown Britain at the University of Leeds.
The New Uses of Screens in Post-Lockdown Britain study has been undertaken within the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds, and funded by the Research England Policy Support Fund 2021-22.
To cite this policy brief, please reference: R. Clayton and C. Clayton (2022) UK screen use in 2022: A need for guidance. Brief 9, Policy Leeds, University of Leeds. https://doi.org/10.48785/100/90