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Screen Off, Screen On... Screen OFF!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Boy with multiple screens

If you have been reading my articles for any length of time, you may believe I hate technology.  Actually, I love technology.  In many ways, it has improved our world.  For example, I love on-line forums where communities share knowledge and encouragement.  I am grateful for Skype when I chat with out of state friends and family.   Word processing has literally changed my life.  And yes, I do love map apps as I am directionally challenged.  So bottom line, I am not a technology curmudgeon.  Concerns arise, however, due to an ever-increasing body of evidence that technology is linked to or directly responsible for a plethora of health woes.  Studies indicate excessive technology use plays a role in the obesity epidemic, muscle and ligament pain and injury, depression, sleep disorders, and societal well-being. Most recently, the World Health Organization decided to recognize "gaming disorder (addiction)" as a mental health condition in its next revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).  While WHO zoned in on gaming, technology addiction can take on many faces including compulsive web surfing, internet compulsions, online relationship addiction, online sex addiction, or general computer addiction.  These types of behaviors may seem extreme but research shows we are all susceptible to tech overuse.

Surveys vary concerning the percentage of people affected by true internet addiction.  Numbers range from 1.5% to 18%.  The number is not as important as knowing it is happening.  For the vast majority of us, addiction may not be an issue but that does not mean we are left unscathed. According to the Global Mobile Consumer Survey, the number of times users look at their phones has remained nearly constant for the past three years at approximately 47 times per day.  (Did you ever look at your landline that many times?) Eighty-nine percent of consumers looked at their phones within an hour of waking up.  The colorful screen with bells, dings, and whistles catches our attention with the promise of a rewarding message or “important” information.  Working on ways to balance time with phones, computers, TVs, and tablets is important for overall health. 

While an occasional digital detox is possible, most of us need to engage with technology on a regular basis.  Our jobs demand it. Communications with family and friends depend on it.  Banking and finance tasks are tied to it. However, shutting off the screen and heading out the screen door has numerous benefits. Neck, thumb, and shoulder muscles relax.  Eyes cease to be as dry and worn out.  Friends and family enjoy uninterrupted conversation, walks, and games.  Time away from work emails provides respite from the daily grind.  Given technology’s integration into our daily lives, how can we create a healthy, happy balance?

The National Institutes of Health offers the following advice:

Talk to your family

Explain to your kids that it's important to sit less and move more in order to grow up strong and healthy.  Watching TV or playing video games can become a habit, making it easy to forget what else is out there. Give your kids ideas and alternatives, such as playing outside, developing a new hobby, or learning a sport.

Set a good example and limits

Create a house rule that limits screen time to two hours every day.   You need to be a good role model and limit your screen time too.  If your kids see you following your own rules, then they’ll be more likely to do the same.  More importantly, enforce the rule.

Log screen time vs. active time

Start tracking how much time your family spends in front of a screen, including things like TV- and DVD-watching, playing video games, and using the computer for something other than school or work. Then look at how much physical activity they get. That way you’ll get a sense of possible changes for the future.

Make screen time = active time

When you do spend time in front of the screen, do something active. Stretch, do yoga and/or lift weights. Challenge the family to see who can do the most push-ups, jumping jacks, or leg lifts during TV commercial breaks.

Create screen-free bedrooms

Don’t put a TV or computer in your child's bedroom. Kids who have TVs in their room tend to watch about 1.5 hours more TV a day than those that don’t.  In addition, it keeps them in their room instead of spending time with the rest of the family.

Make meal time = family time

Turn off the TV during meals. Better yet, remove the TV from the eating area if you have one there. Family meals are a good time to talk to each other. Research shows that families who eat together tend to eat more nutritious meals. Make eating together a priority and schedule family meals at least two to three times a week.

Don't Use TV, video games, or screen time as reward or punishment

Practices like this make screen time seem even more important to children.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at UR Medicine Noyes Health in Dansville, NY.  If you would like to discuss this or other articles, contact Lorraine at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or (585) 335-4327.

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