Like it or not, digital devices are all around us. While these devices can be great tools for communicating and learning, they can also break down our sleep, creativity, and the people around us.
I remember my dad’s first mobile phone – the bag phone. It was a little cumbersome in the car, and he didn’t use it for much besides emergencies. He let me borrow it while I was on a trip. The timing chain on my little Ford Escort went out just as I was getting off the interstate. A couple of guys pushed me to the side of the road. I got the bag phone out, but it was locked and useless! So I walked to the truck stop down the road, and used a real pay phone.
A few years later, my mom still had that bag phone. She had gone to the bigger town nearby for a music practice. She got back in her car and noticed some glass. The passenger side window was smashed! Someone had broken in her car. They only took the bag phone (probably not realizing how old it was by then). She reported the theft to the police, and got the window fixed. We were actually a little excited – Mom could get a real mobile phone now! But before she did, the police called. They found the bag phone, on the ground where the thieves threw it out!
Phones have a place in today’s world. Texting is a great tool for communicating short messages, without getting caught on a long phone call. But when all you do is text and not talk, then you may be missing out on some great conversations.
But phones aren’t the only issue. Televisions, computers, tablets are all concerns. My dad died over 20 years ago, but I often wonder if he would have been so quick to get that first bag phone if he had known how devices would take over. Dad often called our low-tech television (an old Commodore 64 computer monitor hooked up to cable I think!) an idiot box, because that’s what he thought we turned in to when we watched too much TV! I wonder if he’d think we all had idiot boxes that were just smaller – with our smart phones, tablets, small laptops, etc.
But are these devices really all that bad? “It’s not how long we’re using screens that really matters; it’s how we’re using them and what’s happening in our brains in response,” says Pediatrician Michael Rich from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Much of what happens on a device is not reality. Children need time away from devices in order to let their minds wander and their brains to experience more connections. Boredom is okay – that’s where creativity and imagination can really develop.
Brain development also needs a good night’s sleep. And those blue-light emitting screen devices before bedtime can disrupt sleep patterns. And if you or your teen stay up too late using those devices, the important deep REM sleep doesn’t happen.
Studies have shown that self-reports of depression and loneliness, which is highest in younger age groups, decreases when time spent on social media decreases. Another study demonstrated a 33% increase in high levels of depressive symptoms and a 31% increase in suicides from 2010-2015 when teen smartphone usage increased at a rapid pace.
There are centers to treat young people whose excessive games, social media, and online activities are affecting their health and daily lives at home and school. These devices appear to activate the brain’s reward system. It works like a lever on a slot machine at the casino – you’re so close to making it big! Just a little longer…and a young person’s brain lacks the self-control to help them stop that kind of obsessive behavior.
But what about adults? We’re past that brain development stuff. We have more self-control. But we are models for our kids. Are we modeling good digital behavior ourselves?
One healthy habit that adults can cultivate this year is to decrease screen time. I started limiting my personal Facebook browsing to night (which I soon learned is not good for me sleep) and early morning for a very limited amount of time. But as I decreased my time on social media, I found that I really didn’t need to be on social media. I don’t automatically look at my phone when I bored – I might pick up a book instead or get busy cleaning something (never a bad thing!). I try to put my phone down where I can’t reach it easily when I get home in the evenings.
Another good habit to model is to be present. We all know people that can’t get away from the phone – it’s almost permanently attached to their hands! A conversation is start-stop-pause while they look something up, and you may feel like they aren’t even listening. Is it really a conversation if you have to compete with a phone?
What can YOU do for yourself and your kids? Here are some great digital habits to cultivate:
- Emphasize fact-to-face interactions – sports, music, religious groups, extra-curricular activities, part-time jobs, or just getting together with friends.
- Model good non-phone use – have a “no devices at the dinner table” rule (you included).
- Use the time you have – use time in the car to visit with each other (no earbuds). You may want to check into conversation starters if you’re a little rusty!
- Talk to your family about the dangers of too much screen time – don’t just restrict access. Have a conversation about why this is important.
- Encourage family activities – plan a meal, cook dinner together, play board games, play ball in the yard, etc. Make a list of activities that your family can do together without devices, and let everyone contribute. Then post the list and start marking things off as you do them.
- Be the bad guy – let your teens blame you if their friends ask why they aren’t using their devices as much. You may even need to take the phone away at night, if teens can’t control their use (and remember, their brains are still developing that self-control – so it’s okay to help them with strict limits).
- Limit screen time to 1 to 2 hours a day – no more. Plan the amount of TV that you and your family watch and select only the shows that help you to get the best out of what TV has to offer.
What screen habits can YOU change? Let me know over on my Facebook page.