If you keep making that face, it might get stuck that way!

Previously in the Sound Body and Mind series, we looked at how media affects children’s health.  This post focuses on certain detrimental effects of staring at screens. (Which I am doing right now as I write this!)

At some point between the ages of 3 and 5, 97% of Americans have an insatiable desire to make weird, obnoxious faces for no apparent reason.  True story.  Our parent’s cure for this ailment: threaten us with the statement that is the title of this piece.  At the time it was an effective method, as our parent’s word was Law.  But why the heck am talking about this anyway?

face

While I admit it’s a loose analogy, when we stare at computer, TV, or cell phone screens, our brains actually do get stuck in a certain pose.  The brain doesn’t stick its tongue out and go cross-eyed, but certain patterns of neuronal firing do change when we become screen zombies. This can affect vision, sleep, and how the brain processes all the data that it gets throughout the day.

First, let’s look at vision.  Excessive screen use can cause what is referred to as computer vision syndrome, or CVS, and I promise I didn’t make this term up.  While it usually goes unnoticed, using a computer is like a workout for your eyes; the eye muscles are constantly having to flex and relax to adjust to the changing images, light, and glare that emanate from  a computer screen.  This can cause eye strain, blurred vision, headaches, and neck or back pain.

Being constantly bombarded by screens can also interfere with how the brain learns and interprets the world around us.  When we interact with our surroundings, our brains have to process this information.  Studies in rats have shown that the brain requires “down time” to process new information.  Without being allowed to rest and be devoid of stimuli, the rats weren’t able to form the neural connections necessary to make a permanent memory.

rats

We can extrapolate and apply this to humans.  Whenever you have to wait in line or get a moment alone, with nothing imminent at hand, what do you do?  Whip out the phone, check email, text, play games, the list goes on.   I’m as guilty as anyone.  If we apply lessons from the rat brain to our own, it seems that this time may be better spent by doing nothing.  Relax, take deep breath, stare mindlessly out the window.  This may be just what the brain craves.

Lastly, studies have shown that screen time before bed may affect sleep. Just in case you aren’t sick of neuroscience already, here’s a little more.  Melatonin is a hormone released in the brain during the evening and night, and it is important for regulating the sleep cycle.  Exposure to light inhibits melatonin production.   This makes sense evolutionarily, as you wouldn’t want to fall asleep while running away through the jungle at high noon to avoid a meeting with a friendly tiger.  However, humans have recently evolved a strange trait; reflexively checking our phones and computers before bed.  It turns out that phones, tablets, and computers emit a very potent light, which is capable of suppressing melatonin.  Checking your email one last time may seem harmless, but it may in fact disrupt sleep.

cancle

In conclusion, all of you should turn off your lights, your TV, sit in the dark for two hours before bed, and check your cell phone only twice per day.  Candles are allowable.  All joking aside, the verdict seems to still be out on the extent that these occurrences affect our health.  Most of the studies do seem to make sense though, and think we take some good practical advice from them:

  • Try to cut off screen time about 30 minutes to an hour before bed
  • Turn down the brightness on a tablet or computer screen at night
  • Turn the iPhone off, and just take a little time each day to sit and relax (it may also help in other ways)
  • When using the computer for long periods of time, take a break and look away every 20 minutes or so

Overall, if you use modern technologies in a responsible, moderate manner, I think the problems discussed in this post can be avoided.  And I hope our brains don’t get stuck that way!

Sources:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22850476

http://www.webmd.com/eye-health/computer-vision-syndrome

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/health/05light.html?pagewanted=all

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/technology/25brain.html?pagewanted=all

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/really-using-a-computer-before-bed-can-disrupt-sleep/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

Images from:  wikipedia.com, npr.org, and knowyourmeme.com

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A Sound Body and Mind

On Children and the Media

If something becomes an integral part of life, to the extent that we possess it at all times and use it for work, communication, recreation, and entertainment for the majority of each day, would you say that it impacts us?  Would you say that it affects our relationships and health?  If we reflect even for a few seconds, I think it’s clear that it would and does.  For this reason, we are starting a series to examine how the integration of modern technology into our lives affects our physical and mental health, beginning with the health of children.

Disclaimer:   Unlike some of you, I don’t have children.  I don’t pretend to have the slightest understanding of what it’s like to raise children.  My aim is not to offer an opinion on parenting, but to present the research and recommendations of experts on the subject of children and media.

In our society, children grow up in a world where media and technology use have been weaved into our lives to an extreme extent.  Media today is not limited to one TV in the living room; most kids have a smart phone by high school (if not earlier), allowing constant unsupervised internet access throughout the day.  The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report on this subject last October, and here are some of their stats:

  • Children age 8-10 average 8 hours per day of media exposure (includes internet, TV, texting, video games etc.)
  • Older kids and teenagers average over 11 hours per day
  • 71% of children and teenagers have a TV in their bedroom.  1/3 have internet in their bedroom.
  • 75% of kids 12-17 own cell phones

Some of these stats may seem surprising, some may be expected.  Either way, it’s indisputable that the new generation of kids is growing up in a climate saturated with technology.  As most of us likely grew up with the only media being TV, imagine being your ten year old self sitting on the couch for 8 hours a day.  I loved Rugrats and Hey Arnold as much as the next 90’s kid, but I can’t imagine staying glued to the screen for that long–or my mom letting me!

hey arnold

The article cites many ways in which media use can be harmful children.  These include exposure to sexual or violent content, substance abuse, tobacco, and the obvious–if a kid is staring at a screen, it’s not likely that she is running around outside with friends.  The panel did note some positive aspects of media exposure, such as educational programs for young children and “prosocial” media positively influencing teenagers.  They also give recommendations for parents:

  • Total screen time per day should be less than 1 or 2 hours
  • Children under 2 should have NO screen exposure
  • Keep TV and internet devices out of the bedroom
  • Make a home plan for media use, including a “curfew”

I think it’s very important that doctors are looking at media and technology use as a medical issue, and that they are expressing their recommendations to the public.  However, I think the current research is extremely lacking.  The recommendations for use are based on the criteria we talked about earlier (violence exposure, substance abuse, etc).  There is no data about how the drastically increased media use affects children in less tangible ways.  Does being raised in front of a screen affect how a child interacts with other people?  How are relationships being affected?  What about creativity, focus, and attention span?  What about empathy and compassion?

Overall, I think the pediatrician’s recommendations are very helpful to parents, but much more research needs to be done.   In the mean time, we all need to be vigilant about the world of media in which modern children are being raised.

MDB