Ashamed Of Your Screen Time Stats? Here's How To Change That

You shouldn’t dread that weekly notification.

We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Once a week, a dreaded notification pops up on your iPhone screen. If you already have a shiver down your spine thinking about it, you know I’m talking about the Screen Time Report pop-up that shows you the average time you spent on your phone that week. When your percentage is down from the week prior, you might feel an inexplicable sense of pride. On the other hand, when that percentage is notably higher, you might feel like kicking yourself for being too chronically online over the past seven days. All it takes is that one notification to start strategizing how to lower that number in the days ahead.

The desire to lower your screen time is pretty common, and Instagram’s 2023 trend report found that 1 in 4 Gen Z users want to set screen time limits in 2023. Not a bad resolution for the notoriously online generation. For those with the same goal, you might be wondering how long you should set your screen time limit for, how to go about limiting your screen time, and if there really are negative effects from looking at screens for too long.

Of course, screen time and digital media as a whole can be a double-edged sword — as much as there are consequences for looking at screens for too long, there are many positive sides to the online world.

“Much of our world and work is now mediated through the screens, and with the pandemic, we have found new ways of using these screens to our benefit,” Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, Ph.D., director of Media Health, a Canada-based research group that studies the implications of communication technologies, tells Bustle. “For things to have a positive or negative mental health impact, individual choices, needs, and preferences matter… Our research indicates that people [tend to] use screens and social media to their advantage.”

Still, there are some screen-related behaviors to be aware of and ways you can improve the relationship you have with your devices. Below, experts weigh in on some of your burning screen time questions. Don’t worry, the irony is not lost on me that you’re reading these tips through a screen.

How Long Should You Set Your Screen Time Limit For?

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to screen time, the general rule of thumb is to keep your recreational screen time to about two to three hours per day, according to experts, although some lifestyles may make it hard to do so as more people work from home via screens than ever before. In cases where you can’t completely diminish the amount of time you spend on devices, you can be intentional about the kind of screen time you’re participating in instead.

Dustin Weissman, Psy.D., who practices in California, tells Bustle, “All screen time is not created equally and there is no magic number,” since different forms of media stimulate users in different ways, though he still recommends around three hours to his patients. “I exclude work and school from this number as those are required activities that do not engage our brains in the same way [as recreational screen time].”

Since many people likely can’t step away from screens completely, there is a “20-20-20 rule” suggested by various optometrist and ophthalmologist associations, according to Khalili-Mahani. This rule recommends taking a break after 20 minutes of staring at a screen by looking 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

What Counts As Screen Time?

Whenever you’re using a device with a screen — phones, laptops, TVs, tablets — it counts as screen time, though there are varying levels of stimulation that certain activities provide. “It is more about the type of engagement rather than simply the type of device [and size of the screen] that affects symptoms associated with excessive screen time [nausea, lightheadedness],” Weissman says. “Video games and social media have a higher engagement level than television, meanwhile porn and online gambling also tap into our brain's reward system, the mesolimbic dopaminergic pathway [which makes users feel a different form of engagement].”

It’s not necessarily about the type of device or size of the screen that makes the effects of screen time more or less, but rather what you’re looking at that may worsen potential “cybersickness.”

What Are The Symptoms Of Cybersickness?

Anyone who has fallen down a scrolling rabbit hole has likely felt the symptoms of “cybersickness” before, even if they were unaware it had a name. Similar to motion sickness, cybersickness is a phenomenon that comes from the motion you see on a screen. Scrolling social media can give you the sensation of moving up and down while remaining stationary, Weissman says, and that can cause feelings of lightheadedness, nausea, and disorientation. Shelby Harris, Psy.D., director of sleep health at Sleepopolis, also says “eye strain, dry/irritated eyes, headaches, and trouble sleeping” can all result from too much time looking at a screen. Taking frequent breaks and dimming the brightness on your devices can help alleviate these symptoms. Though some experts, like Weissman and Harris, suggest using blue light filtering glasses to ease eye strain, Khalili-Mahani emphasizes that there is no direct evidence that they’re effective.

How Does Screen Time Affect Your Sleep?

You’ve likely heard at some point that putting your phone away and doing no-screen activities like reading before bed can help you get better quality sleep. According to Harris, there’s a legitimate reason screens should be taken out of your nighttime routine. “Blue light exposure from screens such as cellphones, computers, tablets, and TVs can interfere with your body’s natural clock (the circadian rhythm) and make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at night,” she says. “It's easy to be sucked into the content and lose track of time scrolling through social media or emails, which makes it challenging for the brain to wind down and prepare for bed.” Read as: you should be a little more conscientious of how much you scroll through TikTok before hitting the sack — and maybe even take that out of your bedtime routine altogether. If you want to break the habit, start by charging your devices outside of your bedroom so it’s not the last thing you look at before you sleep or the first thing you see in the morning.

How To Set A Screen Time Limit On An iPhone

To set some parameters for how long you can be on your phone on a daily basis, iPhones offer several ways to limit your screen time. First, you’ll want to go to your settings and scroll down to the “Screen Time” section, which is next to a purple hourglass icon. Once you click on that, you’ll first see a bar graph at the top that shows an overview of screen activity throughout the week, a daily average, and a percentage of your week-over-week activity. If you want to take a more detailed look, click the “See All Activity” button under the bar graph, which will lead you to a breakdown of what apps make up the most of your time (social vs. entertainment vs. creativity, for example) and a list of the top apps you’ve used that day with the time you’ve spent on each.

To set limits, you can schedule “Downtime” for certain time periods throughout the day and choose which apps are available during that downtime. For example, if you want to make only your Messages and Spotify available between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., you can totally do that. Keep in mind phone calls will always be available during downtime. You can also make specific “App Limits” and choose a list of apps that you can only use for the amount of time you choose. Once you reach that daily limit, you’ll be sent a notification that allows you to ignore the limit, give yourself one more minute, or give yourself 15 more minutes until you are notified again.

What Can You Do To Decrease Your Screen Time?

Given how digital the world is now, it’s nearly impossible to get your screen time down to zero. There are also plenty of factors that might make your screen time really high one day, like being sick in bed, and really low another day, like being super busy with IRL events on vacation. Still, you should try to decrease the time you spend staring at a bright screen as much as you can, whether that requires you to take a small step like adding screen time limits and lowering your brightness by turning on night mode to limit exposure before bed or a more drastic measure like a timed lock box for your phone to avoid temptation completely.

It’s all about being mindful of how you are using your screens and making strides toward a healthier relationship with your devices, especially if you find yourself experiencing some symptoms of cybersickness. As Weissman says: “Using a device can often, but not always, be a way to avoid stress, not cope with it… Sometimes the best way to reduce time on one activity is to increase time doing others.”

Studies referenced:

Pahayahay, A., & Khalili-Mahani, N. (2020). What Media Helps, What Media Hurts: A Mixed Methods Survey Study of Coping with COVID-19 Using the Media Repertoire Framework and the Appraisal Theory of Stress. Journal of medical Internet research, 22(8), e20186.

Palavets, T., & Rosenfield, M. (2019). Blue-blocking Filters and Digital Eyestrain. Optometry and vision science: official publication of the American Academy of Optometry, 96(1), 48–54.


Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, Ph.D., director of Media Health

Dustin Weissman, Psy.D.

Shelby Harris, Psy.D., director of sleep health at Sleepopolis