Personal Devices and Your Health
What Does the Science Say About Technology?
There’s an ever-expanding body of literature cautioning families about the hazards of technology. I’ve read many articles, and you may have, too, criticizing technology for fueling loneliness and a sense of isolation. But consider this flipside: Scientific research also demonstrates time spent online can be a real positive. Digital connections enhance relationships and may even help people live longer.
So, how can all these results be true? The reason is clear once we unpack the most essential determining factor for every risk and reward. What separates positive results from negatives ones is not technology itself; it’s the way we use it. Managing how we use our personal devices is by far, the key factor in whether these ever-present gadgets are good or bad for our health. This is true for parents. It’s also the case for our children. Let’s take a closer look.
Personal Devices Can Strengthen Friendships
I don’t live in the same town where I grew up. I also don’t work in the same city where I attended college. Friends of mine have made their homes all over the country and emails, texts, and social media platforms like Facebook keep us connected. These fall into the plus column of using my smartphone every day.
Teens experience plenty of positives, too, especially with how they use social media. The list of benefits is far-ranging, including how social media enhances communication skills and increases social connection. Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat offer many opportunities to interact with classmates throughout the day and may help the shyest of children branch out into new friendship circles. Posting pictures may also spark creativity by sharing favorite songs and images.
For adults and teens, personal devices also offer learning opportunities. Take podcasts, for example. Growing in popularity, adults can listen to shows about careers, family, and finances, while teens can enjoy programs about food, school, and life away from home. The topics are seemingly endless. High schools and middle schools often use blogs and apps for students to communicate information about homework and grades. Education is literally at our fingertips.
Tech Usage Can Boost Wellness
Technology is making a difference in how individuals are able to monitor, and frequently improve, their overall health. Heart disease remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States. One of the main causes of this alarming and continuing trend is that we spend too much time sitting around. The other is eating a poor diet.
Technology that’s used to encourage shifts in behavior — either to prevent or manage illness – has led to positive changes in self-care practices. Many applications, or apps as they’re often called, are designed to prompt individuals to take a more active role in tracking and managing their health. These apps, many of them free or inexpensive, are increasingly popular. The upside is so significant mobile devices are known to offer “…great promise for improving the health of the populace.”
There’s no doubt the phones in our pockets have the potential to help us live longer. They can guide us in relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness strategies. They can assist with weight loss, contribute to kicking a hard-to-beat smoking habit, help lower blood pressure, and encourage us to increase the amount of time we exercise.
Teens also can take advantage of personal devices to get a better handle on their health. In addition to all of the above, they can — within seconds — find healthcare information online about issues they may be too embarrassed to discuss in person. These resources can be highly credible and explore such topics as sex, sexually transmitted diseases, stress, and depression.
There are downsides, of course. And these need to be taken seriously.
The Downside of Portable Technology
We live in a world in which we increasingly sit all too often. Sitting down and scrolling through various websites and social media feeds for long periods can be deadly over time. This is because sitting around, instead of moving, increases the likelihood of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
And there’s no shortage of concern surrounding the mental and physical toll from online bullying. It’s important to be aware of our children’s relationships not only in person, but in the digital realm. As adults, we need to remind them there are real people behind the screen. Let them know they shouldn’t say anything in cyberspace they wouldn’t be comfortable saying to someone in person. Parents can also model proper usage. Only post content to your accounts that’s appropriate for anyone to see.
Screen Time: When is Enough…Enough?
Parents are often concerned about the amount of time teens spend on smartphones, computers, or other digital media. Click through for signs your teen may need help reducing screen time.
Your teen feels restless, irritable or angry when you suggest putting down the phone.
Your adolescent is starting to spend more time online than with friends.
Your teen tries to conceal how much time is spent online.
General Life Interference
Your teen’s online time is getting in the way of meeting obligations (e.g. homework) or needed self-care (e.g. sleep).
Find the Healthful Balance
Technology is a popular scapegoat. We blame smartphones, laptops, and tablets for making us sad, overweight, and in some cases, seriously ill. But personal devices don’t deserve all the blame. After all, we operate these gadgets. They don’t run on their own. This means it’s up to us to determine the most appropriate ways of engaging.
It’s important to set clear goals and expectations for yourself and your teens. For example, use devices to purposefully fuel activity – like Geocaching or hunting for Pokémon GO. This is an activity proven to increase the daily number of steps users take after installing the game on their phones. Or, you and your family may want to consider matching every 30 minutes of screen time with 30 minutes of physical activity. If you have access to gaming consoles like XBOX or Wii consider choosing games that require physical movement. You’ll no doubt have your own ideas. Ask friends what they do.
If you suspect the amount of time your family spends online is out of control, there are a few critical behavior patterns to consider. Yalda Uhls, a child psychologist who specializes in how media affects children and author of Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age, suggests asking these questions:
- Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when you try to cut back, or stop your Internet use?
- Do you stay online longer than you originally intended?
- Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to hide the extent of your involvement with the Internet?
If you answer “yes” to these and other questions, Uhls suggests seeking the advice of a mental health professional. But remember that parents can limit the amount of time children and teens spend in front of a screen. That ensures they’ll also have their share of time in the real-world. They can interact with friends and family, play sports, and connect with nature.
Model, Model, Model
Like nearly everything else we do in parenting, modeling is often more important than the words we say. We parents can take ownership of our digital lives. If we’re thoughtful about controlling how, where, and for how long we use technology, our personal devices can’t control us. Instead, we can take advantage of all of the benefits they can offer.