Imagine a typical child or teen — maybe one of your own or someone you know. Now, what do you picture them doing on an average day?
If you said reading a book, playing a sport, or interacting with someone socially, you’ve likely stumbled upon a rare young person.
Instead, you’ll probably imagine the typical child or adolescent absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook before school, glued to their iPad during class, and gaming (playing video games) after school. They might watch TV or a movie before bed.
Or you might envision them texting during breakfast, chatting on Facebook Messenger after school and developing the perfect Instagram photo in the evening.
“The ubiquity of mobile is changing childhood,” James Steyer, chief executive officer and founder of the non-profit Common Sense Media, told CNN. It isn’t just teenagers who are increasingly plugged in. Among the statistics, he said that 98 percent of households with kids under eight have a mobile device.
The Effects of Technology On Health
Technology continues to expand. While during many generations it rapidly increased — think movie theaters, radio, Atari, Nintendo, and television during former eras – today, technological advances far outreach any prior era. And that expansion comes with an impact, both positive and negative.
“Each iteration of [evolving] technology has involved a shift in how we experience time and distance, and how each influences us,” says Jim Taylor, PhD. “Time has shrunk (not literally, of course) as communication has become instantaneous. Distance also seems to have grown shorter (again, not literally) as we are able to connect with people in the far corners of the Earth. We are no longer bound by our physical limitations. Our relationships, because of the changes in time and distance, are no longer limited to people in our immediate surroundings. We are able to connect to, interact with, and build relationships with people as many and diverse as there are countries in the world.”
In one sense, this far-reaching technology can appear profound, wondrous, and enlightening. For the first time ever, we can connect digitally with nearly anyone in the world. But connection seems like such a vague word with technology, which carries a potential destructive side.
(For the record: While the word encompasses a wide range of meanings, in this article, “technology” includes anything with a screen including phones, televisions, digital tablets, laptops, and desktops.)
For one, technology drains time. Research published in 2011 found that by time children reach adolescence, screen time soars to 7.5 hours per day (with more than one-fourth spent media multitasking), for a total daily screen time of almost 11 hours.
That might sound a bit extreme. Depending on the study, statistics vary dramatically about how much actual screen time a child or adolescent spends daily. One recent study found that 37 percent of parents said their child spent between one and two hours a day playing with tech gadgets, while 28 percent said between two and three hours.
And in all fairness, not every child and adolescent falls into these statistics. An athletic kid or a teenager who loves to read might spend minimal time using technology.
Even if they do use technology (and most kids and teenagers do), many parents don’t see the harm. One recent United Kingdom-based survey found four in five parents believe technology and gadgets can help children in their development. Manufacturers hear this validation and the demand children have, and as a result, educational games for kids have become a big business.
Others aren’t so convinced. “No need to spell out the damage this will do to future generations’ well-being,” says Liat Hughes Joshi in The Telegraph about the “iPad generation” of toddlers study.
Critics who believe we spend too much screen time argue society has become increasingly more obese, less intelligent, and lonelier by the year. They have argued that children today lack the ability to be focused, apply knowledge in real-life scenarios, maintain face-to-face conversations, and cultivate long-lasting relationships. Each of these areas is of great concern.
It isn’t just wasted time that might be better spent doing something more productive. Social media, texting, gaming, and other screen-time distractions can also impact psychological and physical health.
Screen time might be divided into two categories: Solitary and interactive. Playing a video or watching TV usually becomes a non-interactive experience, whereas texting or using Facebook might feel like more social interactions.
Both solitary and interactive experiences present their own issues. Isolation can trigger loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Research shows excessive screen time creates or exacerbates these and other disorders including withdrawal, attention problems, and aggression. Online interactions – texting with friends, commenting on Facebook posts – could lead to things like cyberbullying.
That isn’t always the case, of course.
In its best form, technology should bring children together. They could interact with other cultures, realizing their commonalities.
Parents could check in throughout their day to determine their kids’ wellbeing. And digital apps on their smartphones would motivate them to eat healthier, move more, and get more sleep.
Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. In 2018, we’re more plugged in and yet isolated, anxious, and unhealthy.
For example, let’s look at physical fitness. Whereas earlier generations might have spent times outdoors, playing sports, or otherwise engaged in physical activity, technology invites children and adolescents to sit. A lot.
In 2016, a British Heart Foundation study based on United Kingdom government data reported that just one in 10 of the “iPad generation” of toddlers are active enough to be healthy. They noted Britain is “in the grip of an inactivity crisis” with two-year-olds spending increasing amounts of time hunched over gadgets (instead of physical activity or otherwise moving), and most pre-school children (84 percent) don’t even move one hour a day.
Overall, children – and adults, for that matter – spend significantly more time sitting and reclining than actively moving. Our bodies demand movement to maintain healthy circulation, agility, strength, and endurance. During early, intense years of growth, a child’s spine will literally grow with the limitations set on it. Poor posture and fragile bones from lack of muscle movement can significantly impact a child’s future if they aren’t corrected as early as possible.
Screen time dramatically increases that inactivity. According to The Department of Health and Human Services, only one in three children is physically active every day. The YMCA conducted a survey with over 1,600 parents who had kids five to 10. They learned 74 percent of these kids don’t exercise regularly.
Among those distractions, 42 percent of parents say technology – social networks, computer games, and cell phones – get in the way of physical activity. Yet 53 percent say they spend leisure time with their kids on their computers, playing games or other activity.
Beyond impacting physical activity, research also shows screen time can increase obesity and decrease overall health. Other studies associate psychiatric disorders, and ADHD in particular, with technology overuse. Most tragically, research shows Internet use (especially social media) can create or exacerbate suicidal behavior.
One study looked at technology’s impact on psychological issues, behavior problems, attention problems, and physical health among children (4–8), preteens (9–12), and teenagers (13–18). Parents completed an online, anonymous survey about their own and their child’s behaviors regarding daily technology use, what they ate daily, how much exercise they got, and overall health. Over-consuming technology didn’t fare well for any group here, but for teenagers, nearly every factor predicted poor health.
As a result, we’re raising sedentary, overweight kids that carry those habits into adulthood. Research shows twice as many children and three times as many adolescents are obese compared with 30 years ago, and link those increased rates with skyrocketing technological use.
How Does Technology Affect Sleep?
Technology can also impact sleep. One study looked at bedtime electronic use and its impact on sleep quantity and quality, inattention, and body mass index (BMI). Researchers asked parents of 234 children (ages eight to 17) to quantify hours of technology use, hours of sleep, and inattentive behaviors. Any device around bedtime statically significant reduced sleep quantity and quality while increasing BMI. (Interestingly, technology use here didn’t seem to impact attention levels.)
Impact of Technology on Education
With these and other problems — technology overload decreases physical activity, increases obesity, reduces sleep time, and paves the pathway for anxiety, depression, and other mood and mental disorders — is there an upside to spending hours online, smartphones, and tablets?
In moderation, maybe. Even with educational technology, a child always has the temptation to check their email, respond to a Facebook post, or otherwise engage in non-learning interactions. Taylor notes that multitasking — say, checking your texts intermittently while studying – can profoundly impact a child’s learning and grades.
If your child is learning a new language or working on a challenging puzzle, using technology can become a benefit. Educational games for kids can keep them entertained while learning. But when that screen time becomes abused or overused — when it becomes a babysitter or inhibits social interaction — the results can be detrimental.
Far more often, technology — more specifically, technological overuse — impacts children adversely on nearly every level. Researchers conclude technology can have an independent effect on health that differs between children, preteens, and teenagers. Even when they eat healthier meals and snacks while increasing physical activity, technology overload can have vast, detrimental physical, mental, and emotional consequences.
Dependence On Technology – Using It Wisely
Technology isn’t going anywhere. If anything, the number of screens will only increase over the coming years. But the answer isn’t despair. You shouldn’t flippantly dismiss things as “kids these days…” or talk down to your teenager when they refuse to get off their iPhone.
As with other things, technology can have a healthy place in anyone’s life. At its best, it can make us better people. An Instagram picture can make us more aware of the world around us. A Facebook post might raise awareness about a cause. An encouraging text can really make your child’s day.
The point is to use technology wisely, and use it for a greater good; not allow it to use us or our children and consume our lives. Like everything, we have to understand its benefits and limitations.
Mindlessness underlies many of these problems. Eating chips while playing video games, sitting for hours scrolling through Facebook rather than being outside exercising, and texting that cuts into sleep hours. Most screen time for adults and children becomes a passive process, fragmenting your attention as we, say, watch a Netflix show while texting or scrolling through Twitter.
“Mindfulness: the perfect antidote to our tech-filled lives?” asked Nisha Lilia Diu in The Telegraph. Think about a time you scrolled through your Facebook feed for 20 minutes. For a child or adolescent with a developing brain, that’s wasted time that could be far better engaged interacting with others in real life or learning a new language.
That passivity — being half-mindedly engaged in a digital app or multitasking — can create or exacerbate problems like depression and anxiety. A fragmented mind never stays completely present.
“I think the rise in the use of technology and social media in the last 10 years has been a particularly strong factor in causing anxiety,” Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of digital app HeadSpace, says. (This article was published in January 2014.) “That’s not to say these things are bad, but the way in which we are using them, and even being encouraged to use them, is not healthy for the mind. It means the mind is always on the go, very reactive, leading to a feeling of being unsettled and anxious.”
You don’t need to create a civil war with your young ones or completely boycott technology. Instead, you want to teach them to use these devices wisely and to find balance with real-life activity like having tea with a friend or visiting a museum. And you’ll want to help them foster activities that are equally engaging but more productive and that create stronger lasting habits for life.
7 Strategies For Creating Healthy Habits
To do that, you’ll probably need to lay down some ground rules (if you haven’t already) about screen time. These seven strategies can help you do that and create stimulating alternatives to technology that they’ll find more rewarding in the big picture.
1. Get kids invested in nutrition.
“Cooking real food is a revolutionary act,” says Mark Hyman, MD. “We currently raise the second generation of Americans who don’t know how to cook. The average child in America doesn’t know how to identify even the most basic vegetables and fruit; our kids don’t know where their food comes from or even that it grows on a farm.” Getting your children involved with healthy recipes, including healthy snacks for kids, might include technology such as searching online for dinner ideas downloading an app. But the ultimate goal here is to step away from the screen and into real life.
2. Take a screen-free sabbatical one day every week.
Passively watching TV or playing online games with your child or adolescent disservices everyone. Life is precious and short. Kids grow up fast. Do you really want to look back and reminisce about those beautiful Saturday afternoons you stared at a computer screen? Make a commitment one day each week that you will turn off all electronics and do something active. That might include hiking, touch football, camping, wandering through a farmers’ market, or volunteering. Make this day mandatory but fun, and remember you set habits, so don’t check your phone or get caught up in a TV show at the restaurant that day.
3. Encourage imagination and creativity.
Staring at screens is a largely passive process that can dramatically stifle the sense of wonder and awe children need to experience. Staring at their smartphone, they miss the world around them. People but also nature and the freedom to develop ideas and cultivate creativity. Joshi says technology can stifle the “free, uncluttered thinking space to daydream, use his own imagination or observe little wonders such as raindrops racing down a window.” Find ways to foster that creativity. Ask your child to sprawl in the grass and observe everything around them on a warm sunny day. (You should do it too!) Encourage your teenagers to take a creative writing class or learn a new language — they’ll thank you as adults.
4. Power down at dinner (or better yet, every meal).
In many households, you’ll find silent families with their necks drooped over, looking at their phones instead of laughing, sharing stories about their lives, and supporting each other at the end of a long day. No TV show, interactive game, or social media outlet can replace this kind of communication. You’ll never look back and say, “I’m so glad I took that work email during dinner.” When you put away technology at meals — make this mandatory — you open the door for real, engaging, long-lasting interaction that sets children up for a future where they feel empowered and confident to create more healthy, meaningful relationships.
5. Establish nightly curfews.
Research shows blue light exposure on digital screens suppresses melatonin at night, increasing the risk for diseases but also interfering with quality sleep. Burning the midnight oil finishing a research paper or (more likely) chatting with friends online makes your young ones less productive and alert the following day. Make the few hours before bed power-down hours. Turn off all electronics and create a sleep ritual that might include a good book, a hot bath, or light yoga. If you didn’t have dinner together, this might be a good time to also catch up on your kid’s day.
6. Make nutrition and fitness fun.
If they’re going to engage with technology, at least make it educational. This site provides plenty of kid-friendly nutrition pages, and you’ll find plenty of fitness apps for their smartphones to get them up and moving. Make this fun. Create a contest about who can get the most steps in every week or who can eat the most green vegetables.
7. Visit your chiropractor.
Neuroplasticity means your brain’s neurological tissues are like formable plastic being molded, grown, and developed from birth all the way through old age. A central tenet of chiropractic is that poor health can be a result of vertebral subluxations (areas of spinal misalignments and fixations that hinder neurophysiological function), which subsequently lead to negative impacts upon the central nervous system. The purpose of correcting these subluxations is to remove interference so that the body can better heal itself. Let’s face it: your kid probably stares at an iPhone or another screen most of the day. That creates bad posture and all the problems that come with it, making a chiropractor visit to correct poor alignment and any other related issues incredibly important.
At its worst, technology acts as non-human surrogates by taking time away from the more important needs that children have: real-life experience, social interaction, and creativity. Many children feel ignored or invisible with a parent tied to their phone or computer, but they gradually adopt the same dependency, seeing it as normal.
Setting a strong, positive example for children and adolescents becomes more far-reaching than you might realize. Children constantly observe and experiment with the behavior they see, whether coming from their parents, their doctors, or celebrities they see on the screen.
Be the example you want to see in your kids because eventually, they’ll carry those habits throughout life. Put away your phone at dinner. Spend time reading a real book rather than a tablet. Engage in conversation with your friends and significant others rather than responding to Facebook posts. And really listen when your children and adolescents talk rather than eye your phone or type an email.