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HomeHealth TopicMental Health

Digital Overload: Read This If Your Screen Time Is Out of Hand

Tracy Asamoah, MDPatricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH
Updated on January 17, 2023

Key takeaways:

  • Digital overload is when using tech devices like smartphones, computers, or TV exposes you to more sensory information than you can process.

  • Signs you may be experiencing digital overload include irritability, anxiety, vision problems, difficulty sleeping, and mood swings.

  • To lower your risk for digital overload, try limiting your screen time to 2 hours per day outside work. You can also turn off notifications, create tech-free times, and use only one device at a time.

Woman laying across her laptop keyboard looking sad. The room is dimly lit and the computer screen is shining on her face like a spot light.
FG Trade/E+ via Getty Images

Digital technology has become an important part of our daily lives. Our laptops, smartphones, computers, and tablets help us at work, allow us to stay connected with friends and family, and can keep us entertained for hours. A 2022 report showed that, on average, adults in the U.S. spend more than 13 hours a day using phones, laptops, tablets, televisions, and gaming devices.

Unfortunately, technology can make life more difficult in certain ways. Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re often in a bad mood or feel anxious after checking your social media feeds. These may be signs of what is increasingly known as digital overload or of an associated problem known as information overload. 

Digital overload can cause a number of issues. But it is something you can avoid by making changes to better balance your digital habits.

What is digital overload? 

Digital overload happens when you spend too much time consuming media through screens. This makes it hard to process the information you’re taking in. Digital overload can happen whether you’re online, watching TV, or playing video games. It can lead you to feel distracted, anxious, fatigued, or even depressed. 

Digital overload can result from habits such as:

  • Spending too much time on your devices: You can face digital burnout if you spend too much time online without taking regular breaks.

  • Consuming too much information: The amount of information you absorb online can pose a problem, too. Information is available around the clock from a seemingly infinite number of sources. Your brain needs a break from all that input. 

  • Media multitasking: Your brain can also become overwhelmed when you use more than one device at a time. For example, you might check social media while binging the latest Netflix show. However, media multitasking doesn’t do you any favors. Research shows that people who media multitask perform poorly on tasks that require focus.

How much digital consumption is too much?

Research has not quite figured out what our limit is when it comes to time online. However, experts recommend less than 2 hours of screen time per day for most children under age 18. For children under age 5, pediatricians recommend even less screen time. 

It is likely that for adults, too, it’s better to limit time spent on devices. Generally, adults should aim for less than 2 hours of screen time a day outside of work. This can help you avoid the problems associated with spending too much time online.

What are the symptoms of using too much digital media?

You might notice a change in your stress level if you are using your devices too much. Research suggests that spending more time on the computer leads to higher stress levels. As a result of this stress, you may: 

  • Be more irritable

  • Have trouble relaxing

  • Feel fatigued

  • Have physical symptoms such as headache 

Too much screen time can also lead to overstimulation for some people. Overstimulation — also referred to as sensory overload — is when your senses are overwhelmed with too much information at once. This can cause you to have difficulty processing what you’re taking in. 

People who use their devices excessively have also reported symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as:

  • Excessive worry

  • Mood swings

  • Feelings of hopelessness 

A study in teens linked excessive device use to increased rates of depression and suicide. The study did not show that screen use causes depression and suicide. But it suggested that teens who use screens excessively are more likely to be unhappy. 

You may also experience physical problems if you are on your devices too much. Some of the complaints linked to excessive digital device use include:

  • Problems with sleep: For example, when you use your phone right before going to bed, you might find it hard to shut your brain off so that you can fall asleep:

  • Visual problems: When we stare at our screens too much, we risk overworking our eyes. This can cause problems such as eye strain, blurred vision, and dry eyes.

  • Decreased bone density: When we use our devices, we are often sitting or lying down. If this causes you not to get enough physical activity, it can cause a decrease in bone density. It also puts you at greater risk of breaking a bone.

  • High blood pressure: When device use leads to a lack of physical activity, it can also put you at greater risk for chronic health problems such as high blood pressure.

Digital overload can affect you in other ways, too. When you use your devices excessively, you might miss out on activities that take place offline. Time on your device may cause you to spend less time with your friends or family, which isn’t good for your emotional and physical health. Your device might also be a distraction that keeps you from fulfilling your obligations at home or at work. 

In severe cases, people who use their devices too much may struggle with digital addiction. In 2018, the World Health Organization defined gaming disorder. A gaming disorder leads you to develop an addiction to video games that interferes with your social life, relationships, education, or work. Experts are also looking at social media use and online shopping as areas where addictive use might become a problem.

What about information overload?

Information overload — when you’re faced with more information than you can process — is one common result of digital overload. Research reveals that sorting through the immense amount of information online can be overwhelming for people. 

For example, you might find yourself “doomscrolling” through post after post about a scary news story online. It’s difficult to stop scrolling, but your brain can no longer process what you’re reading.

Like digital overload, information overload can lead to negative consequences. These include:

  • Anxiety and fear

  • Disgust

  • Irritability

  • Regret

  • Feeling like a failure

  • Difficulty making effective decisions

  • Digital divenessness,” which may drive societal discord and online violence 

How can I better manage my use of informational and digital technology?

Now for some good news: There are simple things you can do that will allow you to enjoy your digital devices while protecting you from digital overload.

  • Set time limits on your use. For example, set an alarm that reminds you to put your device down after 30 minutes.

  • Use only one device at a time. If you’re on your computer, for instance, turn your phone off and set it aside.

  • Turn off unnecessary notifications. This includes notifications from social media.

  • Plan your social media and news activities. Instead of looking at your favorite social media and news sites throughout the day, check them once or twice a day at scheduled times.

  • Prioritize off-screen activities. Take a walk, play a game with your family, or try cooking a new recipe.

  • Create tech-free times. Plan to stop using your device at a certain time each night. Using your device’s “do not disturb” function will keep your device-free time from getting interrupted.

  • Create tech-free zones. For example, make the dining table a tech-free zone in your home.

A little bit of information and healthy screen-use habits will give you the benefits of technology while helping maintain your physical and mental well-being.

The bottom line

Digital and information overload occurs when your technology use becomes so frequent that you can no longer process or benefit from it. Digital overload can lead to negative consequences like irritability, difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. If you’re experiencing digital overload, reduce your recreational screen time to less than 2 hours each day. Other changes — like scheduling social media checks, turning off notifications, and prioritizing tech-free activities — can lower your risk for digital overload. 

References

American Optometric Association. (n.d.). Computer vision syndrome.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Information overload. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

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American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Sensory overload. APA Dictionary of Psychology.

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Mark, G., et al. (2018). Stress and multitasking in everyday college life: an empirical study of online activity. CHI '14: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (2013). Reduce screen time. We Can!

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World Health Organization. (2020). Addictive behaviours: Gaming disorder.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

For additional resources or to connect with mental health services in your area, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. For immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or text HOME to 741-741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.

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