17 Years Of Your Adult Life May Be Spent Online. These Expert Tips May Help Curb Your Screen Time

Fortune Well March 9, 2024


17 Years Of Your Adult Life May Be Spent Online. These Expert Tips May Help Curb Your Screen Time

You’re reading this on a screen, but you may want to take a break after finishing the article to avoid spending years of your life eyeballing pixels. That’s not hyperbole. Worldwide, internet users spend an average of 400 minutes—nearly seven hours—a day online, according to a new report.

Digital reference library DataReportal in January released its annual Global Overview Report, revealing internet users ages 16 to 64 spend an average six hours, 40 minutes daily surfing the web on any device. That’s about 47 hours a week and 101 days a year. By this estimation, beginning at age 18, a person who lives to be 80 will have spent more than 17 years of their adult life using the internet.

It’s worse in the U.S., with Americans spending an average seven hours, three minutes online a day—exceeding 18 years of their adult lives. People in Japan spend the least time online daily, three hours, 56 minutes, while those in South Africa spend the most, nine hours, 24 minutes. Between the ages of 18 and 80, that amounts to 10 and 24 years online, respectively.

The idea that people around the world spend the equivalent of their entire childhoods connected to the internet may be a disturbing thought. But a key step in coming to terms with the startling statistic is to embrace the inevitable, according to Alex Turvy, M.Ed., a researcher in Tulane University’s City + Culture + Community program studying social media and internet culture.

“The reality is that so much of our screen time these days is unavoidable,” Turvy tells Fortune via email. “Nonnegotiable parts of our work and social life necessarily happen on or via screens, and there’s real reasons that we might want to preserve some of our relaxation time on screens in a guilt-free way. 

“That said, it’s not helpful to set unrealistic goals—it’s better to start with a real recognition of what professional and social life in 2024 require.”

Do I really spend 7 hours a day online?

If you associate the phrase “screen time” with doomscrolling on Instagram or catching up on TikToks, you’re not alone. Social media addiction is a well-documented behavioral disorder, but it’s just one form of digital addiction. About 25% of the general population worldwide could be affected by at least one type of digital addiction, such as internet or gaming addiction, according to a 2022 study published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review. Even so, you don’t have to have a digital addiction to use the internet as much as DataReportal suggests.

Think about how many times on a typical weekday you look at screens and how long you’re glued to them. If you work a desk job, even from home, you’re likely in front of a computer screen for at least eight hours a day. Not to mention all the times you check your phone or smartwatch. In the evenings, perhaps you work out via an app on your smart TV, stream a show on your tablet, play on your gaming console, video chat with a loved one, or dive into a new book on your e-reader. It may be simpler to add up the hours you aren’t tied to the internet.

To help curb your screen time, Turvy recommends an “integration over separation” approach such as listening to a podcast or audiobook during a walk, which combines digital engagement and physical activity.

“Recognize that the dichotomy between screen time and non–screen time is becoming increasingly blurred,” Turvy says. “Integrating meaningful screen-free activities into daily routines rather than strictly separating the two can be helpful.”

Sleepy young woman with flowing hair using phone on bed, close face palm. Top view

How you’re exposed to screens matters

Matthew Lapierre, Ph.D., an associate professor of communication at the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, wasn’t surprised by DataReportal’s estimates of how much time people spend online. But those numbers also should be taken with a grain of salt owing to the complexities of collecting such data on a global scale, he says.

When considering your daily screen time totals, Lapierre recommends evaluating your level of engagement. Streaming hours of TV in the background while you’re doing chores, for example, may not be as detrimental as consistently spending 40 hours a week sitting in front of your computer. How you utilize screen time is more important than how much you’re exposed to it, he stresses.

“My own smartphone research shows that if I’m using my smartphone to connect interpersonally, I’m doing better as a human being,” Lapierre, who studies media and health, tells Fortune. “I’m feeling more connected, I’m feeling a greater sense of belonging.”

Turvy, too, emphasizes quality screen time over quantity: “Promote engagement with digital content that is enriching and purposeful, which can lead to more fulfilling and less wasteful screen time usage.”

There’s good reason to be mindful of your tech habits, but not to panic about their cumulative duration unless they begin to negatively interfere with your life, Lapierre says. In addition to digital addiction, excessive screen time may lead to other health problems ranging from digital eye strain to depression to impaired sleep.

“Absent that, the idea that you’re spending more time with screens, I think, is just a reality moving forward,” Lapierre says.

Low angle view of a woman sitting on a sofa looking at her laptop.

Consider a ‘notification vacation’

Global internet usage is unlikely to decline anytime soon. About 52% of U.S. adults used the internet in 2000, compared with 95% in 2023, according to the Pew Research Center. Globally, 396 million people used the internet in 2000, a number that skyrocketed to nearly 5.3 billion last year, per DataReportal.

“Bottom line is we’re adjusting to a new way to live,” Lapierre says, “and my hope is that we get equilibrium.”

Total screen avoidance—even just for a day—is not only unrealistic but also a privilege tied to professional and/or economic status, Turvy says.

“For most people, there’s a need to stay close to their devices in order to be available to their manager and colleagues, and in order to manage their family life,” Turvy says. “The ability to fully step away from those things typically takes professional status and resources to pull off, so they’re not reasonable expectations for most.”

Instead, consider a “notification vacation” in which you mute nonessential notifications, Turvy says. That way, you can stay connected without devices monopolizing as much of your time. He also recommends screen breaks on weekends or for a few hours on weekdays when possible, and appreciating the ways in which screen time improves your quality of life.

“Focus on using technology to support your values rather than detract from them,” Turvy says. “This approach encourages intentional use of screens, ensuring that digital engagement enhances rather than eclipses real-life experiences.”

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