UAE residents on how to 'reclaim their time' as screens take up more of it

Experts also weigh in with advice after data shows increase in global internet time

Data shows the average time spent online of UAE residents is more than eight hours in a day. Photo: John Schnobrich / Unsplash
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Recent data shows that the world's internet use has gone up – reversing from a downward trend in previous years. People are back on their screens, but what does this mean for our well-being?

A typical internet user spends six hours and 40 minutes online per day, according to global audience research company GWI. This is up almost one per cent year-on-year. The numbers are even higher in the UAE, with average time spent online at eight hours and 11 minutes per day. Since the UAE's median age is 33.6 – which is fairly young compared to other countries – people naturally cling to their gadgets for everything, from work to entertainment.

While screens have become a big part of people's personal and professional lives, there is still growing concern about how they negatively affect our health, and at times, relationships.

Screen versus quality time

One of the most obvious impacts of excessive screen time is how it can interrupt quality time spent, but it also has many physical health issues associated with it.

“Excessive screen time has been linked to a range of health issues, including obesity, sleep disturbances and mental health problems,” says Christian Kiefer, chief executive and founder of Rayya Wellness.

On a recent family holiday to Thailand during the Eid break, which he describes as “refreshing and eye-opening”, Kiefer took the chance to embark on a digital detox. “It allowed me to disconnect from the constant demands of work and technology and truly immerse myself in quality time with my daughter.”

He adds that it's important for him to “lead by example”, especially as a parent. “By cutting down on my own screen time and prioritising meaningful interactions with my family, I'm not only setting a positive example for my daughter but also promoting a healthier lifestyle within our household,” he explains.

The same is true for Abu Dhabi resident Asha Sherwood, who spends an average of six to 11 hours glued to her mobile phone, mainly due to work. “I'm bothered by my screen time more because of the impression it leaves on my daughter,” she says. “Because the phone can be a quick way to communicate, and people send messages at all times of the day, it intrudes on family time and takes my focus away from her.”

Sherwood, who works in media, says she doesn't want her daughter to think that “being on the phone all the time is the norm and that she needs to rely on it for communication or for stimulation".

Tazeen Jafri, who lives in Sharjah, is also concerned about how her daughter, two, turns into a “completely different person” when exposed to mobile phones or television. “I used to let her watch nursery rhymes on TV and sometimes on the phone to make the long drives easier, for example. I thought it's an educational tool, but then I saw the tantrums and the frustration,” she tells The National.

“She wouldn't want to listen and I thought 'my obedient and generally pleasant child looks like she's having a withdrawal." Now, she has now completely removed screens from her daughter's daily routine. “It's been a rough battle keeping her occupied," she adds.

Growing up with siblings, Jafri engaged in a lot of physical activity. She says it's also a generational issue, with many children now having access to mobile phones at a young age and being exposed to more technology.

“I had a fixed outdoor playtime when I was young, but now, no one plays outside any more. I try to make sure my daughter has this time, too. I allow her to go outside for 30 minutes, which we have been doing since she was six months old. Now, she rides her bicycle and throws her ball around.”

Tips for keeping screen time down

As ubiquitous as screens are, there are ways to ensure they are not used excessively, and setting boundaries is essential. “Designating specific times when screens are off-limits and prioritising alternative activities such as outdoor adventures or hobbies can help break the cycle of screen dependency,” Kiefer says.

There are screen time tracking applications that people can use to better monitor daily use. For parents, Kiefer believes in leading by example. “Modelling healthy screen habits and establishing clear rules around screen time can help instil good habits in children from a young age,” he says.

“Additionally, utilising parental control features and fostering open communication about the importance of balanced screen time can empower parents to guide their children towards healthier tech habits.” Creating tech-free zones within the home could also be an option, adds Kiefer. “Prioritising quality time spent with loved ones over digital distractions strengthens family bonds and fosters meaningful connections.”

For Dubai resident Stephen King, getting a basic Nokia 3310 mobile phone has allowed him to become more productive and less distracted by smartphone notifications. While he owns two other mobile phones, one for work and one for entertainment, King has created distinct boundaries in his device usage. He keeps his work phone in a bag with a laptop, while his other phone “always stays at home”.

“The problematic use of internet and mobile phones could be akin to addiction,” he adds. “I wanted a real break, so I cut the cord literally.”

This absolutist approach might not work for everyone, though. Smita Malwe, who lives in Dubai, says she prefers just being more conscious and self-aware. "While I can't avoid work-related screen time, I try to take a few minutes' breaks every hour to give my eyes some rest. Additionally, I am working on reducing my personal phone and TV usage, especially trying not to binge-watch on weekends,” she says.

Malwe has also turned off notifications for most of the applications on her phone to avoid getting too distracted. “It has not been an easy journey, but I am determined to break this habit and reclaim my time.”

Updated: April 24, 2024, 7:21 AM