It has been nearly 11 weeks since our household went into quarantine. We’ve gone out to grocery shop, pick up prescriptions, attend to the dog’s health, and go to the post office. Otherwise, we’ve had to content ourselves with activities and entertainment available in our Home Sweet Home.
For the majority of our confinement, I’ve been on a tear to complete household projects that had been lingering on the “to do” list forever. I had quite a lot of them, so it has kept me quite busy. But as I neared the end of that first wave of activity, I started watching more TV. A lot more. So, I decided to explore the subject to see if that was a healthy response to our circumstances.
According to a 2019 Nielsen study, Americans spend a great deal of time in front of screens. (See Note 1.) On average, we watch a smidge over four hours of television per day. We log another six hours on the Internet via our computers, notebooks, SmartPhones, and tablets. Add in another hour-and-three-quarters on the radio and forty-five minutes on game consoles and you’ve got quite a lot of media stimulation! But here’s the kicker: During a national crisis, we tend to up our media consumption by 40-60%. And we’re that much more attuned to social media to bridge the gap in missed face time.
Is all this screen time good for us?
Brain imagining scans show that excess screen time results in a deterioration in structural integrity. (See Note 2.) Gray matter atrophies in areas that govern executive functioning (planning, prioritizing, organizing, regulating impulses), reward pathways, and empathy. Compromised white matter affects internal connections between the right and left lobes as well as the higher (cognitive) and lower (emotional/survival) brain centers. As a result, we’re less adept at critical thinking, less sensitive to others, and more prone to addictive behavior.
Screen time has been associated with increased heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes as a function of high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess midsection body fat, and high cholesterol/triglycerides. (See Note 3.) Such risks proved to be dose-dependent and were not moderated substantially by outside physical activity. Moreover, watching TV two or more hours per day and snacking while viewing has been associated with increased risk of obesity. (See Note 4.) And, of course, if we’re working full time and watching a lot of TV, we may not make time for exercise.
But doesn’t TV relieve stress and help us chill out? Assuming the content imparts happy or peaceful images, that argument likely holds true for limited engagement. But protracted screen time may be associated with impaired emotional health. Decades of data collected by the General Social Survey demonstrates that happiness has been linked favorably with social activities, religious affiliation, and reading and negatively with television. (See Note 5.) Of course, correlation does not prove causation. But, it certainly warrants moderating one’s screen time to see if less results in a better mood.
So, what should I do?
First and foremost: Exercise! For optimal cardiovascular health, Dr. Dean Ornish recommends stretching at least 20 minutes per day plus 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. That regimen should be supplemented with weight training for healthy bones and firm musculature. Exercise is good for the body and good for the brain.
Second: Meditate. I’ve written several posts on the benefits of meditation. This practice gains increased importance during times of uncertainty and stress. We cannot change the past nor control the future. We can train ourselves to live in the moment with a calm, clear, centered outlook. That perspective will alleviate stress and place us in the best position to make good decisions.
Third: Read. The Pew Research Center found that readers are drawn to books for pleasure, personal enrichment, and the joy of escaping into an alternate reality. (See Note 6.) Researchers at Emory University also found that “reading stories not only strengthen language processing regions but also affect the individual through embodied semantics in sensorimotor regions.” (See Note 7.) In other words, reading gives the brain a nice workout!
Fourth: Just do something. Cook. Garden. Knock off projects on the “to do” list. Learn to play a musical instrument or perfect skills on ones you already know how to play. Learn a foreign language. Make some art. Write a poem. Play cards or board games with family members. Give your screens – and your eyes – some rest!