First let me be clear, as an individual, a parent, an educator and a health and wellness consultant, I am not against screens or technology. I have several myself and use them on a daily basis. My children are allowed screen time and when teaching, I used them in my classroom. Technology is not a bad thing, quite the opposite, but as we know, we can all have too much of a good thing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard the phrase “you’ll get square eyes if you watch too much television,” growing up, which of course never happened, but even then, thirty something years ago, the fear was real. So, we don’t have square eyes, but what is screen time doing to our bodies? And when should we stop?
Most of us are aware by now how screen time before bed impacts our sleep. If you’re not, let me summarise: the blue lights emitted by screens limit the production of melatonin, which is the hormone that controls your sleep – wake cycle or circadian rhythm. Reducing melatonin makes it harder to fall and then stay asleep. Giving yourself thirty technology free minutes before bed will help (if you make it an hour, even better). Technology keeps your brain alert, which throughout the day may be a good thing, but before bed it can easily tell your mind it needs to stay awake and engaged which makes it difficult to relax and settle into sleep – your mind needs time away from technology to unwind. Your devices can wake you up – message alerts, phone calls, flashing lights, vibrations and reminders can all disturb your sleep. Sleeping with electronic devices in bedrooms leads to us having less sleep, leaving us sleep deprived. It’s a great idea to make bedrooms technology free zones, except there are also sleep trackers, smart mattresses, lights (Drift Light) that are designed to aid sleep and improve quality – the take home message is that if you’re using a device or technology in your bedroom, make sure it makes your sleep better, not worse.
What about our minds?
I’ll get onto adults in just a minute, for now let’s look at the effects on our children…
Our environments play a big role in shaping our brains. Responding to the environment and experiences, interacting with the world around us is what triggers the thinking that shapes our brains. So, think about how you spent your time during your childhood…were you in front of a screen all day? Or were you running around playing, climbing trees, building forts, riding bikes and having all sorts of fun adventures with your friends? It is estimated that in the United States alone, around 75% of children spend seven hours a day using screens. That is an overwhelmingly large amount of time, and a huge percentage of their waking day. How is it shaping their brains?
As stated above, screens are everywhere and a huge part of modern childhood. Our children spend hours in front of screens every day, which isn’t always a bad thing – there are educational apps and shows that provide great ways for them to sharpen their developing brains and develop their communication skills, and let’s be honest mums and dads, they give exhausted parents a break. BUT… there are a number of studies out there connecting delayed cognitive development with prolonged exposure to electronic media and devices. Research is showing that children as young as two years old regularly play iPad or tablet games and have toys involving touch screens (try showing your children old photographs, you may be surprised at how many of them try to zoom in by expanding the photo), which isn’t always a good thing.
Between birth and three years old, our brains develop quickly and are highly sensitive to the environment around us. Doctors and Psychologists call this the critical period because the changes and growth that happens during these years becomes the foundation our later brain function is built on. For the brain to develop normally during this period, a child needs specific stimuli from the outside environment. These needs have evolved over centuries of human evolution, and, when a child spends too much time in front of a screen and not getting the required stimuli from the real world, their development becomes stunted, and this is not usually temporary; when the damage occurs during the critical years, it is often permanent. Let’s use story time as an example…when an adult reads a story to a child, the child takes times to process the adult’s voice into words, visualise complete pictures, and puts effort into following the story and timeline. Compare that with a child reading a story on a smart phone, tablet or other device and we see that the device does the thinking for them, feeding them words, images and pictures at the same time and we see the child becoming lazy. When the device does the work for them, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.
One of our favourite things about smart phones and other similar devices is the ability to process multiple actions at the same time, which is exactly what young, developing minds don’t need. When our children are developing, they learn to focus, concentrate, pay attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and understand their communication with them; too much screen time too soon impedes these developments. So, while screen time may give us a well-deserved break and help keep our children entertained, it needs to be managed and age appropriate.
Think about how you make friends. In short, it all comes down to the frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain we use to decode and understand our interactions with other people; we use it to empathise, read non-verbal cues and learn the unspoken elements of relationships (facial expressions, tone of voice etc.). It should come as no surprise that the frontal lobe develops from birth and the most critical stage is early childhood, all of which depends on authentic human interactions. So now think about it – if a child is always in front of a screen, instead of talking to and playing with others, how can their empathetic abilities fully develop? They can’t, at least not fully, which means a reduced ability to read situations and people, which makes social interactions difficult.
There is another very important thing we learn from devices that can be damaging in the real world – when we use a touchscreen, our actions have an immediate effect and require a quick response, which is only true in the on-screen world. When every touch or finger swipe reveals colours, shapes and sounds, our children’s brains respond happily with dopamine – which is the main component in our reward system that gives us the feelings of pleasure. A dopamine hit in the brain can feel addictive and when our children get used to these immediate responses, they learn to prefer this type of interaction instead of real world interactions as they enjoy the instant gratification and response. This is a similar reaction to what is seen in people with addictions.
That doesn’t mean go home and throw out all of your devices. Despite the dangers of over exposure, there are still many benefits to letting children using technology. After age two, an hour of playing with tablets or smartphones to help develop co-ordination and hone quick reactions can be a good thing (that’s one hour MAXIMUM), but they should not ever replace human interaction or real world activities.
So, to sum up…where children and devices are concerned, create boundaries to make sure they learn what is the real world and what is the virtual one.
What about adults?
We already covered sleep so now let’s look at a few other risks…
Brain structure: our brains are made up of grey matter and white matter. Excessive or heavy use of electronic devices can result in a restructuring of this matter, affecting how your brain functions. Research has seen shrinkage of grey matter, problems with white matter’s ability to communicate, a lot more cravings and generally poorer cognitive performance in excessive technology users.
A study in 2008 revealed prolonged screen exposure puts you at higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome – this combines diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and is generally a toxic cocktail of poor health (usually linked to a sedentary lifestyle, so it’s possible that this risk comes more from inactivity while using devices than the actual devices themselves). Our bodies need to move. Simple.
Eye strain. Too much time spent using screens, is bad for our eyes. Blue lights from our screens may not just be keeping us awake, but also damaging our retinas. A good idea is to use the dimming function on your device’s screen instead of using them brightly for hours and after twenty minutes on your screen, look at an object twenty feet away for twenty seconds to give your eyes a break.
This is a controversial topic but let’s talk social skills and reading emotions. As we learned earlier, online interactions instead of real life human interactions impede children’s ability to build relationships and communicate meaningfully. This can be true for adults as well. Even if it’s not down to iPads or phones, a lack of face to face interaction in favour of social media and simulated emotional connections can impact your ability to process emotion properly.
To sum up many studies…science tells us excessive time spent sitting in front of a screen will lead us to die earlier. Not moving for long periods of time lowers our cardiovascular health and increases mortality risk. The bad news here is exercising more doesn’t counteract it either. Studies show that increased sedentary time in front of screens can increase our likelihood of death by 52%, and being a regular exerciser only lowers that by around 4%, so it’s not just being sedentary, the screen viewing itself causes our bodies to work less well.
So, if you want to live longer, get fitter, have a healthier heart and be able to communicate well with others, logging off your devices and going for a very long walk may be the better choice.
We all use technology, it’s an integral part of life these days, but it doesn’t have to be the main part of every day. No amount of online chatting or social media accounts can replace human relationships, and no matter what we think, we need those life skills. We need to practice the art of waiting and learn how to interact with the people and the world around us. Am I saying get rid of your iPhone and go back to your old Nokia? No. I’m not saying throw out the laptops and tablets or refuse your children access…just be mindful about it. Screens are not babysitters and hour after hour of Netflix or whatever games the young people are playing these days is not the best way to spend the entire day. Technology is just like life; healthy boundaries are key. It shouldn’t need years of research and scientific studies to tell us that sitting down for hour after hour at a computer, slumped over our phones and then crashed out in front of a TV screen is not a recipe for a healthy life. For the majority of us, sitting at a computer plays a large part in our professional lives, so we can’t walk away or ignore it, but we can make changes – get out of your chair every thirty minutes, do office chair stretches (lots of videos on You Tube about this), swap your chair for an exercise ball, use a standing desk instead, take walks on your lunch/tea breaks and give your body space and time to get moving after sitting down for so long – regardless of how it feels sometimes, we are physical beings and our bodies do not thrive when we don’t use them.
How much is too much? If screens dominate your day leaving no time for anything else, it’s too much. If your child knows Daniel Tiger better than they know you, it’s too much. If you have a thousand friends on Facebook but can’t remember the last time you talked with a friend over a meal or coffee, it’s too much. Research time limits for your children and set guidelines in your home, and give yourself a break from emails, messages, social media and Candy Crush. There’s a whole lot of life going on around you, look up from the screen or you might just miss it.
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