Disconnect to Reconnect: Reduce Screen Time for Increased Health and Wellbeing

Who doesn’t have a cellphone these days? Being cellphone-less is akin to either being a member of some uncontacted tribe or other societal misfit. Ask many people what they want and their answer would be the newest phone (nevermind food, justice, or a safe, healthy environment). Heck, it seems like even babies are now crawling out the womb with phones clenched in their tiny fists. The same goes for televisions and computers- many homes nowadays have at least one, if not more, of these devices.

Technology is great indeed. Television provides hours of entertainment (some of which can be educational), and computers are increasingly necessary in many spheres of our work and lives. With the invention of cellphones, our ability to communicate with each other increased significantly (theoretically, at least. We still have to find the right words to say, as well as the guts to speak up sometimes..).  It’s not enough to just have a cellphone though; now those phone must be ‘smartphones’- capable of surfing the internet on the road, taking pictures and recording video, playing music, games, and a host of other functions.

One thing that gets my attention is the way that children- increasingly younger in age- seem to be fascinated with this technology. Suckling babes now lock eyes with the phone screen instead of their mamas, and toddlers barely mastering motor skills speedily access apps. In fact, many parents now use their phone to soothe, entertain, and distract a fussy child, in much the same way that television is/was used. Dealing with fretful children can be very stressful indeed, and it is understandable that caregivers would want to turn to electronic devices to help them cope. However, there are compelling reasons to resist this and to limit the amount of ‘screen time’- time spent in front of a television, computer, as well as, increasingly now, ‘smartphone’-  that children are exposed to.

Today, the average child spends over five hours in front of some sort of screen. While computers may be useful for researching and completing school assignments, and there may be some educational TV programs and applications on smartphones, the fact is that the health and wellbeing of many children today is negatively affected by large amounts of screen time. From concerns about cellphones and brain tumors to increased risk of becoming overweight and obese, links between media violence and aggressive behavior, as well as reduced emotional intelligence- the negative effects of technology on children are overwhelming.

There’s some concern that cellphone use may be linked to cancer- specifically brain tumors. Cellphones do emit a type of electromagnetic (EM) radiation, but this is similar to the radiation from other common sources such as microwave ovens which have not been shown to be cancer-causing. However, EM radiation can be absorbed by tissues close to the source and some studies have shown differences between brain tissue on the side of the head where a cellphone was primarily used, compared to the opposite side.

An increase in one type of brain cancer (glioma) was found in one study among participants with heavy cellphone usage. Although this study was deemed inconclusive, in 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)- an arm of the World Health Organization- classified radiofrequency fields emitted by cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC called for more studies but recommended that persons take precautionary measures in the meantime such as using ear pieces and avoiding frequent cellphone use. Because children’s brains are still developing and because earlier cellphone use means more years of exposure to EM radiation, the IARC also recommended limiting children’s cellphone use.

While the jury is still out about the possible link between cellphone use and cancer, the other concerns about children’s screen time are much more scientifically valid. Numerous studies from around the world have found a clear association between children’s screen time and their risk of becoming overweight/obese. A policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics cites the fact that children often swap physical activity for sitting in front of the television or computer, as well as the fact that much of the advertising on television is for ‘fast’ and ‘junk’ food- often high fat/sugar items with little nutritional value. Television watching not only encourages snacking and mindless overconsumption of these foods but also plays a large role in shaping children’s dietary preferences. With advances in technology, such advertising is also now reaching children via cellphone.

Television and computer/video games also expose children to large amounts of violent content. There are over 800 acts of violence per hour in most television programs, and up to 20 per hour in children’s programs such as cartoons. Mimicking of violent behaviors seen on screen is common, with children- especially those under 4 years of age- being less able to differentiate between virtual and ‘real’ life. They can become desensitized when exposed to violence on a regular basis, coming to view it as normal and a good method of conflict resolution.

Racist and sexist attitudes embedded within tv programs and computer games is also a concern as constant, unchallenged exposure to such attitudes can shape children’s perceptions of themselves and others in negative ways. Lastly, too much screen time affects children’s emotional intelligence- their ability to comprehend emotions and communicate and interact positively with others. One study published last year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that pre-teen children who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers.

Technology is here to stay, for better or worse. We have to figure out how to best engage with it, and use it in positive ways, instead of let it hurt our vulnerable children. Limiting and monitoring children’s screen time is necessary, as well as encouraging more engagement with the real world and each other. For in the end, better health and wellness comes first and foremost from improved human – human interaction.

Sherlina can be contacted at ssnageer@yahoo.com

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