Between checking email, texting, scrolling through social media feeds and watching viral videos, adults spend more than 11 hours per day on their phones, according to the research firm Nielsen. Screen time not only has negative impacts on mental health, increases the odds of suffering from headaches and backaches and raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, it might also be making you fat.
New research presented at the American College of Cardiology ACC Latin America conference found college students who used their smartphones for five or more hours per day had a 43% greater risk of obesity compared to their peers who spent less time staring at their screens.
PHONES LEAD TO MINDLESS EATING
Spending time with your smartphone increases the odds you’ll engage in mindless eating; the more time you spend on your device, the more apt you are to consume sugar-sweetened beverages, explains Erica Kenney, ScD, MPH, assistant professor of public health nutrition at Harvard University.
In her research, Kenney gathered data from 24,800 high school students and found 20% of participants spent at least five hours per day on screens; the more time they spent scrolling, the more likely they were to pop the top on a soda or other sugary beverages.
“[H]igher device use was associated with a higher likelihood of consuming at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day, which may indicate that these devices are having a similar impact on diet,” she says.
Screen time may also increase the odds you’ll see ads for unhealthy foods that could impact your food choices, Kenney adds, pointing to data showing food companies are making significant investments in advertising through new media, including smartphones and tablets.
BLUE LIGHT INTERFERES WITH SLEEP
The blue light from your smartphone and tablet can also mess with your circadian rhythm, disrupting your sleep; countless studies have found connections between sleep and weight. A study published in the journal Obesity Research & Clinical Practice is one of several that showed both sleeping too much and sleeping too little was associated with higher rates of obesity.
Falling asleep requires we are in the right frame of mind: rested, relaxed and willing to allow ourselves to sleep,” says Dr. Susheel Patil, PhD, clinical director of the Pulmonary Sleep Medicine Program at Johns Hopkins University. “Screen time often interferes with this. We are actively engaged when looking at a screen, whether with a game, responding to emails, listening to a podcast, reading the news or catching up with social media.”
WAYS TO BREAK THE HABIT
Abandoning your smartphone might not be realistic but reducing the amount of time you spend staring at the tiny screen is a good idea, especially if you want to keep your weight in check.
While it might seem counterintuitive, if you’re struggling to limit screen time, Kenney suggests downloading an app to help you track how much time you spend on your device and blocking the most addictive apps as a good place to start.
“It’s become incredibly difficult to do this in this day and age, but try to be aware of how much time you’re spending watching TV and looking at your devices,” she says. “Anything that you can do to try to reduce your screen time a little bit is probably going to have some benefit.”