Posted by & filed under Noah's Notes.

Although I made it through another Black Friday without spending a penny (due more to an aversion to shopping than any principled stand against the degradation of holidays with naked consumerism) I have not been immune to the relentless marketing of “goodies” via email and social media.  Electronics are always pushed especially hard and have great appeal. Cell phones, tablets, computers and game consoles can be functional (tools for communication, resources for information) and fun (games, social media, movies, on demand TV). But it comes at a price that goes beyond their substantial dollar costs.

Our overuse of “devices” is impacting our health.  Studies have shown that with increasing screen time comes higher rates of depression, obesity, poor sleep quality, decreased physical activity and decreased socialization.  And our children mimic our behaviors.  Children do not have a natural ability to manipulate digital devices or any inherent interest in them, but they do have a powerful drive to emulate the behavior of the adults in their lives, and when they see parents and others spending much of their time staring at one screen or another they are quick to pick up on the behavior.  Children who spend more time with TV, electronic games, smart phones and other screens are less physically active and have a higher risk of obesity, behavior problems, ADHD, poor sleep, and poor school performance.  And the average child spends 7 hours a day focused on one screen or another.

It is alarming to note that studies have shown that heavy use of the internet is associated with:

  • shrinkage (called atrophy) of the gray matter of the brain in the areas involved with organizing, planning and impulse control
  • degradation of white matter, which allows for communication between different parts of our brain and helps us to balance emotional responses with reason
  • thinning of the cortex of the brain and decreased ability to perform cognitive tasks and a heightened sensitivity to rewards and an insensitivity to losses
  • changes in dopamine systems that mimic addiction so that heavy users may crave access to  screen time when they cannot have it

For adults these dynamics can be annoying to others but also substantial impairments to personal, social and work success.  Their impact on children can be profound as the changes in a developing brain (and brain development continues into our early 20s) may be permanent.

So here are a few straightforward strategies to balance the value and fun of screen time with the need for real human engagement and physical activity:

  • Put your own devices away and spend quality time with the children in your life.  This time should include physical activity, conversation, shared experiences and lots and lots of eye contact (one study has shown that the more time parents spend on devices the more risky their child’s behavior came – an attention gaining strategy!).  You’ll feel better too.
  • Limit your screen time and your children’s screen time.  1 hour a day for all screens, including TV, is the recommendation for children.
  • Remove TVs from the bedroom.  TV at bedtime impairs sleep and leads to behavioral problems in children.
  • Ban electronics from the dinner table and have a conversation!
  • Set aside time dedicated to physical activity, for you and for your children.

It feels good to unplug and it is unlikely that you’ll regret foregoing screen time in favor of time spent with family, friends, your children or even a good book.

Noah Nesin, MD

Dr. Nesin, Vice President of Medical Affairs for PCHC, is a family doctor with 30 years of experience.

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