Screen Apnea: How Your Device Makes You Breathe Less

The first time most people see the term “screen apnea,“ they likely assume that they have misread the term “sleep apnea.“

Sleep apnea is a common medical condition, often thought to occur more frequently in those who are overweight or obese, that involves disruptions in normal breathing patterns as you sleep.

Screen apnea is a relatively new term that most people are still unfamiliar with yet may actually be experiencing in their own lives.

Keep reading to learn more about screen apnea and how to prevent it.

We will cover: 

  • What Is Screen Apnea?
  • What Are the Symptoms of Screen Apnea?
  • What Causes Screen Apnea?
  • How Do You Know If Screen Apnea Is Affecting You?
  • Tips to Prevent Screen Apnea

Let’s get started!

Someone at a screen falling asleep.

What Is Screen Apnea?

Dr. Daniel Boyer, MD, of the Farr Institute, says that screen apnea is a condition where people experience frequent pauses in their breathing when looking at a screen. 

“It’s caused by the strain that occurs when we focus our eyes and attention on a bright light for extended periods of time,” he explains. “These pauses in breathing can last for anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes and can occur even when you’re not consciously thinking about it.”

According to Michael OBrien, a meditation teacher and creator of the Pause Breathe Reflect Meditation App:

“Writer Linda Stone first coined the term ‘email apnea’ back in 2008, and it’s commonly referred to as screen apnea today, which is a temporary absence or suspension of breathing or shallow breathing while emailing or using a screen.

Back then, she estimated that 80% of her colleagues suffered from it, and with our screen time rapidly rising, it might be even more common today.” 

A tablet that says screen time.

Ultimately, screen apnea is not necessarily an official diagnosis yet because it is a relatively new phenomenon that has come about as a result of increased screen time. 

With that said, this doesn’t mean it’s innocuous. Dr. Boyer says there can be real health consequences of screen apnea, namely poor-quality sleep.

“When you’re using screens late into the night, your body is exposed to blue light, which can disrupt your natural sleep cycle.

This can result in difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, leaving you feeling tired and sluggish during the day,” he explains. “Poor quality sleep can also lead to other health issues such as poor concentration, memory problems, and a weakened immune system.”

What Are the Symptoms of Screen Apnea?

According to Dr. Boyer, the symptoms of screen apnea vary from person to person but generally include the following:

A person tying on their laptop.

Sleep Disturbances

People who experience screen apnea may find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep due to the stimulation from spending too much time on their devices, which can lead to feelings of fatigue and irritability during the day. 

Increased Anxiety 

We often think only of the physical symptoms of screen apnea, but Dr. Boyer says the symptoms can bleed over into mental health issues as well.

“People with screen apnea may feel more anxious or overwhelmed when thinking about the amount of time they are spending on their screens,” he notes. “They may also feel guilt or shame for not being able to control their screen time better.”

Difficulty Concentrating 

People who experience screen apnea may have trouble focusing on tasks and activities that require sustained attention, leading to decreased productivity and frustration. 

A person on their phone.

Social Problems 

There can also be social and relationship issues that ensue from screen apnea.

“People with screen apnea may find it difficult to connect with others in real life due to the amount of time they are spending on their screens,” says Dr. Boyer. “They may feel isolated or disconnected from their peers and family members.”

Physical Symptoms

Dr. Boyer says there are physical symptoms of screen apnea, such as headaches and blurred vision, but also accompanying symptoms of excessive screen time or computer time, such as neck pain or carpal tunnel syndrome.

What Causes Screen Apnea? 

OBrien says that one of the reasons screen apnea occurs is because most of us have never learned how to breathe correctly, and holding our breath when focused or stressed is a natural brain reaction. 

“Shutting down or turning off the subconscious brain gives us more energy to focus on what’s front and center. It’s why we might hold our breath when driving while lost or forgetting to eat while consumed by a big project. The brain temporarily shuts off your hunger sense to help you get work done.”

A person with poor posture at the computer.

“Besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, we should all know how to breathe slowly, deeply, and through our nostrils in grammar school, considering how vital our breath is to our health,” suggests OBrien. “In Stone’s research, she found that those who have discovered how to use their breath wisely, like musicians and athletes, were less likely to suffer from email apnea.”

Dr. Boyer says that screen apnea occurs when a person has difficulty breathing due to their posture when sitting in front of a screen, such as a computer, laptop, or tablet. 

“It is caused by poor posture, which can put pressure on the lungs and diaphragm, resulting in shallow breathing or even apnea (the complete cessation of breathing). Other factors that can contribute to screen apnea include stress, fatigue, dehydration, and poor air quality in the surrounding environment,” he says.

Poor Posture

Ultimately, poor posture is the primary cause of screen apnea. 

“When sitting in front of a screen for extended periods of time, it is important to maintain good posture to ensure that your lungs and diaphragm are not being compressed,” advises Dr. Boyer.

“This includes sitting up straight with your back against the chair, shoulders relaxed, and feet flat on the floor. Additionally, it can help to take regular breaks from the screen and to move around in order to avoid fatigue.”

A person at their desk rubbing their shoulder.

Dehydration 

Another contributing factor can be dehydration.

“Dehydration causes your body to become tenser, which can make it difficult for your lungs and diaphragm to expand and contract as they should,” shares Dr. Boyer. “This can lead to shallow breathing or even apnea. It is important to stay hydrated in order to prevent this from happening.”

Air Quality

The air quality in your environment can also be a factor in causing screen apnea because poor air quality can make it difficult for your lungs and diaphragm to move as they should, resulting in shallow breathing or apnea. 

Dr. Boyer advises ensuring that the air you are breathing is fresh and clean in order to prevent this from happening.

Excess Weight

Dr. Boyer says the most common group of people who are prone to getting apnea are adults who are overweight or obese. 

According to Dr. Boyer, “Being overweight or obese can lead to apnea because fat can build up around the neck and chest, narrowing the airway and making it harder to breathe.”

Your biological sex and age can also play a role in your risk of developing screen apnea.

“Men are more likely than women to suffer from apnea, with four out of five people who suffer from it being male,” explains Dr. Boyer. “In fact, the risk of apnea increases with age, and more than half of men over the age of 65 have sleep apnea.”

A person smoking.

Smoking

Because smoking can irritate and damage the airways, making them more prone to obstruction, smokers are also at greater risk of developing apnea.

Medical Conditions and Medications 

Dr. Boyer says that people with certain medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, stroke, or diabetes, can also be more likely to develop apnea. 

“Other risk factors include having a narrow airway, a large neck circumference, or an abnormal facial structure,” he shares. People who have family members with apnea are also at higher risk for developing it.”

How Do You Know If Screen Apnea Is Affecting You?

Dr. Boyer says that one of the challenges of identifying screen apnea is that the symptoms of screen apnea are similar to those of sleep apnea, so it can be difficult to tell the difference. 

“The most common symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, feeling irritable or moody, fatigue, and headaches,” he explains. “If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms and you spend a lot of time in front of a computer or other digital device, then screen apnea may be the cause.”

OBrien says another common sign that you’re dealing with screen apnea is fatigue. 

“When our body doesn’t get the proper oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, it can lead to tiredness and brain fog,” he explains. “You might also notice signs of TMJ if you’re clenching your jaw as you hold your breath.”

Breathing exercises.

Tips to Prevent Screen Apnea

Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to help combat screen apnea. Here are a few tips to get you started:

#1: Take Regular Breaks

Dr. Boyer suggests taking a break from your digital device every 20-30 minutes to give your eyes and body a chance to rest and help reduce strain on your neck and shoulders.

#2: Adjust Your Posture

It’s essential to use good posture when using any type of digital device, be it your phone, tablet, laptop, or otherwise. 

Your head should be in line with your spine; your shoulders should be relaxed and down, your chest up, your core engaged, and your feet flat on the floor.

A person rubbing their eyes in front of a screen.

#3: Stretch

Dr. Boyer advises taking regular breaks to stretch your neck and shoulder muscles. This will help reduce tension in your postural muscles and prevent any long-term damage.

#4: Use Eye Drops

“Dry eyes can be a symptom of screen apnea, so using eye drops can help reduce the discomfort,” suggests Dr. Boyer.

#5: Change Your Lighting

It’s important to make sure that the lighting in your environment is not too bright or too dark. A comfortable balance between the two will not strain your eyes.

#6: Do Breathing Exercises

OBrien advises setting an intention to check in with yourself every few minutes and notice if you’re breathing.

“The first step is always awareness which you can develop by paying attention to your breathing while scrolling or trying to get to inbox zero,” he says. “Since breathing is one of our body’s gifts that we don’t have to think about, it’s easy to take it for granted.”

Try to note: Are you breathing shallowly with your shoulders or deep from your belly or abdomen? 

Someone taking a deep breath outside.

OBrien suggests that a simple way to assess your breathing is to watch yourself breathing in front of a mirror; if your shoulders are moving up and down, you can shift and start breathing more deeply and healthier with your diaphragm. 

“You can begin to practice breathing slowly, deeply, and through your nostrils by taking micro-breaks breathing breaks that I like to call Pause, Breathe, Reflect moments,” he notes. “With consistency, you develop a healthier breathing habit that you can carry with you throughout the day and whether or not you’re on a device.”

He adds that any breathing pattern that encourages you to take slow, deep breaths through your nostrils will help. 

“Specifically, Buteyko breathing, alternate nostril breathing (Nodi Shodhana), and the one-minute meditations and breathwork patterns can be practical exercises to help you slow down and strengthen your breath awareness,” advises OBrien.

“When you feel stressed or notice that you are holding your breath, a simple one- or two-minute practice can help you reset, renew, and refocus.” 

Dr. Boyer’s takeaway is that screen apnea can and should, be treated. 

“If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek help from a healthcare professional who can diagnose and treat the condition. With proper treatment, people with screen apnea can learn to manage their screen time and lead healthier lives.”

For different types of stretching routines to help improve posture and flexibility in general, check out our stretching guides.

A person at the computer.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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