You probably already know that spending too much time with your digital gadgets can have a negative impact on work productivity and also interfere with your real-life interactions. However, new research shows that those are not even the worst repercussions that come with excessive screen time.
Rather, it’s the mental and physical health hazards that are a bigger cause for concern. The most worrying part about these findings? It’s not just adults who are impacted – children and teenagers are also vulnerable to the detrimental effects of staring at a screen for prolonged periods of time.
What are the consequences?
Giving too much attention to digital screens weakens our brain’s ability to process information, focus, make decisions and control thoughts. In a number of studies, brain scans of technology-addicted adolescents reveal significant anomalies in their brain structures: reduction in the volume of grey matter and striatum, deviation in white matter pathways in the brain network and cortical thinning. To the majority of us who aren’t versed in the terminology of neuroscience, these are what the findings translate to:
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• Weakening of the brain’s cognitive functions
Reduction in grey matter and cortical thickness affects many of the executive functions related to the formulation, interpretation and processing of thoughts and information. As a result, too much screen time reduces the brain’s ability to handle activities such as planning and organising. Clearly, this could spell trouble for learning and productivity-related matters.
• Lower impulse control
The loss in volume of the striatum can result in a weakened ability to manage one’s behaviour because this nucleus is an essential part of our brain’s motor and reward system. A decline in our impulse control is really worrying because we could end up being trapped in a vicious cycle of screen addiction.
• Slower or inaccurate emotional processing
Altered white matter pathways in the brain lead to disrupted communication within the various parts of the brain because white matter connects brain centres responsible for different brain functions. Compromised white matter is one of the main symptoms of an internet addiction disorder, a condition that recognises serious screen addiction for its noticeable and damaging impacts on one’s daily life. Luckily, most of us aren’t at this stage yet, and it’s important to ensure we don’t get there.
To adults, these findings may not be particularly worrying because our thought and emotion processing abilities are already well-developed, but what about our kids?
Why the consequences are even more severe for children?
Because children’s minds and bodies are still developing, the effects of screen addiction are exacerbated. Most of us grew up without technology and social media, so it isn’t that hard for us to separate our virtual and real lives. However, the same cannot be said for our kids. Research is uncovering evidence that excess screen time impairs learning, causes physical problems and also leads to mental health disorders.
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• Impaired learning
A South Korean study found that toddlers who spent more hours facing screens were slower in learning languages while a separate study in Thailand provided evidence of behavioural control problems in toddlers who watched more TV.
• Posture and body aches
Posture may seem like a minor issue, but using digital devices for hours strains your child’s muscles, tendons and ligaments. Consequently, more children are visiting doctors to treat pain in their neck and back. If left uncorrected, bad posture could affect the shape of your child’s spinal cord in the long run and also lead to permanent hunching.
• Eye and vision-related problems
Computer eye syndrome isn’t unique to adults, it affects children too. It has been found that excessive screen time leads to eye strain and discomfort and poorer vision. Myopia rates are startlingly high in young children here, with 28% of primary one students and 65% of primary six students being myopic. And myopia isn’t just about the need to wear spectacles – myopic children are at a higher risk of developing serious myopia in the future.
• Mental health issues
Unlike physical issues, these are more controversial because the findings are somewhat contradictory. Some studies suggest that a healthy amount of screen time is beneficial to children as it provides a source of entertainment that enhances mental well-being, and also allows them to interact and bond with friends. However, it’s extremely hard to define the appropriate length of time a child should spend online.
A UNICEF study, for example, suggests that more than two hours of smartphone usage on a weekday or four hours on a weekend is too much. But what the studies agree on is that too much social media can lead to distorted impressions of self and lowered self-esteem because the platforms triggered body image issues and cyber-bullying cases. Ultimately, excess screen time could lead to depression and anxiety in children and this is something definitely worth our concern.
What we can do to help ourselves
Before we consider how to stop our children from getting addicted to their screens, we have to manage our own screen time. After all, parents should always lead by example – and a good one at that! In order to effectively limit our screen time, let’s break down the causes of screen addiction so that the right solutions can be implemented for the issues at hand.
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• The technology itself
Sometimes we simply shouldn’t blame ourselves because digital platforms are by design meant to capture attention and make you want to spend more time on them. Most social media or news sites like BuzzFeed or Facebook gain revenue from advertisers, so it's not surprising how they want you to spend more time on the site and will devise all kinds of marketing strategies to keep you glued to the screen. You can’t tackle the technology, but you can manage your usage of it.
Solution: Impose time limits for leisure screen time
Literally set time restrictions and abide by them. For example, don’t surf the web during office hours or while at work.
• Work commitments
Unfortunately, the nature of modern workplaces is such that we’re expected to be connected 24/7, resulting in many of us being unable to turn off our devices, even at home.
Solution: Keep work out of your personal time
Refrain from checking your work email or message channels unless there’s a really important assignment or deadline coming up. Blurring the boundaries between your work and personal life can make it harder for you to disconnect and will only bring you stress. Better still, get moving and play a game of football or basketball with your friends or family.
It’s become socially acceptable to use your phone during gatherings – nobody would bat an eye if you whipped out your phone mid-dinner. In fact, phone usage is contagious and others would probably follow suit.
Solution: Make it a point to get everyone to put their phones away, especially if you’re with close friends. They’ll likely understand the rationale and be happy to comply.
Let’s be honest – this is the root cause of the problem. We use our phones way too often because we’re bored or distracted and just simply want something else to focus on. Mindless scrolling has also become a way for us to relax before bedtime or in the middle of the day, and the more we confine ourselves to such habits, the harder it is to break out of them.
Solution: Don’t use digital devices while eating
Mealtimes are our favourite times to catch up on our social media feeds or the news because it’s one of the rare times our minds aren’t occupied with work. But it’s time to change that – make it a habit to focus solely on your food and your dining companions during mealtimes.
Dr Richard Swinbourne, PhD., a senior sport dietitian and sleep scientist at Singapore Sport Institute, believes in being proactive when it comes to minimising unnecessary screen exposure. The senior sport dietitian and sleep scientist recommends tips such as creating media-free time windows throughout the day, holding walk-and-talk meetings at work, having a no-phones-at-the-table rule during family mealtimes, and removing televisions from the bedroom. “Screen time is inactivity personified, and the saying 'hills hurt, but couches kill' is indeed true,” he says.
How we can help our children
After taking the first steps to limit your own screen time, you’re now in a better position to tell your kids to follow mummy or daddy and put that device away! How much screen time your child should get and the level of supervising you should administer really depends on your child’s age. Generally, the younger your child is, the less screen time you should allow, especially unsupervised screen time.
- If your child is below 18 months: Avoid screen time as far as possible. They’re too young to be addicted to digital devices and exposure to screens could negatively impact brain development.
- If your child is between 18 to 24 months: Some exposure to screen time is okay but only do so with parental supervision.
- If your child is between 2 to 5 years old: Keep a curfew to screen time. An hour a day is the maximum you should allow.
Some other general guidelines
The no-screens rule during mealtimes and before bedtime need not apply to just yourself, but your kids too! Also, it’s a good idea to vet all digital content before introducing it to them to prevent them from being exposed to material that could affect their emotional growth.
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Calls for us to reduce our digital device usage and cut back on screen time are increasing nowadays. The brain scan research results show us that doing so doesn’t only benefit us – it’s also for the good of our children, who are at risk of far more long-term damaging consequences than us. Limiting screen time is necessary but it’s not easy. If you’re having difficulties implementing cut-back measures or maintaining them, don't fret. Talk to us at Active Health Labs for more information and advice.