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Some Truths About Screen Time

Are you worried about how much time people spend on screens? Perhaps you are concerned that kids’ brains are turning to mush because of how much time they are playing Fortnite.   Is screen time bad? Here are some facts about screen time and some important factors to keep in mind when assessing your own usage or monitoring your kids on screens.

First some realities. According to the Pew Internet Research center, the percent of Americans using the internet has grown rapidly. In 2018, near 90% of 18-29 years are users, and over 50% of 65 and older are users. A study just published in the journal Children, reports kids 0-8 years of age spend 35% of their screen time on mobile devices (up from 4% in 2011).

But the big bad news? Jean Twenge, in her book iGen and her research, reports kids today are hanging out with their friends less, are getting less sleep, and more of them (8th to 12th grade) are reporting being lonely. Twenge’s data shows kids using the internet, playing computer games, texting, and on social media more, are less likely to be happy.  Kids who play more sports and see friends in person, are more likely to be happy.

What’s this doing to our brains? We cannot be sure. It would be unethical to do an experiment exposing kids to more social media while keeping it from others to see brain effects. That said, like Twenge’s data, there is a strong relationship between heavy media use and poor brain development.

Social media and video games are fun. Anything fun (e.g., ice cream, pizza, riding a roller coaster) feels good and releases a neurochemical called dopamine. It is easy to get addicted to dopamine and want and do more of what gets us more dopamine.  One real problem is that social media pushes multitasking and our brains are not good when we divide our attention. Students texting in class learn, understand, and remember less.

Excessive social media use is also associated with less life satisfaction. In one study, people who stayed off Facebook for a week were actually happier.  In another study, people would rather give themselves mild electric shocks than sit without their phones and just think. Even just having a phone in sight (even off) can hurt our performance on mental tasks.

While this all is cause for alarm here are a few key points to remember.  First, note not all screen time is alike.  There are many creative activities one can do on a screen (compose music, draw, write, program). Second, we should find the sweet spot- some time here and there is fine.  Exceeding an hour at a stretch is not a good idea. Third, parents need to model good behavior. If kids see parents on their phones all the time, it is no surprise they will want to use their phones as well.

And about Fortnite (one of the most played video games in schools today).  Despite fears to the contrary, playing violent games do not seem to cause violent behavior. In one longitudinal study just published, participants played Grand Theft Auto (violent) for two months every day. They were not different from non players or players of Sims 3 (non-violent).  In another longitudinal study, exposure to shooter games at an early age did not relate to adolescent conduct disorder or criminal behavior.

It is also important to not get caught up in alarmist views. Screen time is being made out to be the devil but there are few experimental tests of the effects of screen time. That said, too many people spend too much time on their mobile devices. Extended time is worse for children whose brains are not as developed as those of adults.

We all should take time away from technology. It will not be easy. Just like quitting smoking, cutting down on technology will be difficult at first. It will be hard but it will get easier.  Just like quitting smoking, we will be healthier if we moderate our tech use.  Healthier, and as the data suggest, more creative, more productive, and happier as well.





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