Family Forum / By Judy Konitzer: I enjoyed watching a segment of 60 Minutes on CBS on December 9, 2018, when Anderson Cooper interviewed Dr. Gaya Dowling and Dr. Kara Bagot of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, Seattle Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University.
Jean Twenge, Ph.D./ COURTESY PHOTO
It focused on a groundbreaking study to examine the effects of screen time on kids. Some of you might remember Jean Twenge speaking to family members at AAAA’s Summit in April 2012, and I followed up collaborating with her on an article in our magazine the following July.
The federal government through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched an ambitious study of adolescent brain development with scientists trying to understand how screen time impacts the physical structure of children’s brains, as well as their emotional development and mental health. They will follow 11,000 kids for a decade and spend $300 million to do it. When the study is complete it might be possible to say whether screen time is addictive or not. In studies up to this point, Dr. Christakis recommends that parents “avoid digital media except video chatting in children younger than 18-24 months. Toddlers need laps more than apps.”
If parents are concerned with their teenagers being addicted to their i-phones, an infant is much more vulnerable when using the exact same device. It is because the experience of making something happen is so much more gratifying to them. And it seems that Silicon Valley insiders publicly have acknowledged that i-phones and apps are being designed to capture and keep kids’ attention.
Dr. Bagot recently conducted a study with an 18-year old using MRI imaging. This teenager acknowledged checking her cell phone at least every 10-20 minutes. Although not able to take the cell phone into the machine, she could see her Instagram images from a movie screen across the room. The MRI showed part of her brain lighting up when she had good feelings from her account. Based on past data, some scientists believe screen time stimulates the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which has a pivotal role in cravings and desire.
Dr. Bagot feels that you want to keep the good feelings coming, so you are more likely to use social media compulsively. Dr. Twenge has spent many years analyzing past surveys and studies and has discovered sudden changes in the behavior of teens born in 1995 and later, a generation she calls “I-gen.” Since Yahoo, Google, the Internet, and AMAZON were commercialized, it has been determined that teens spend an average of four and a half hours a day on their phones.
Many acknowledge feeling lonely or anxious when they did not have their cell phones on them, and over 70 percent also said they check their messages as soon as they wake up in the morning.
By 2016 she found teens reported that drinking and having sex fell, but the percentage who reported being lonely or depressed spiked, and ER visits for self- harm like cutting have tripled among girls ages 10-14.
Electronic Devices & Social Media Impacts
Twenge acknowledged that other factors could be playing a role, but she was not able to correlate anything as closely as usage with the smartphone and social media. Twenge’s “Suspicion is that kids are gonna be OK; however, it is not okay that 50% more teens suffer from major depression now vs. just 6 years ago and three times as many girls 12-14 take their own lives. It is not OK that more teens say they are lonely and hopeless. It is not OK that teens are not seeing their friends in person as much. If we twiddle our thumbs waiting for the perfect experiment, we are taking a big risk and I for one am not willing to do that.”
Right now, she feels that using an electronic device (smartphone or tablet) for an hour a day does not have a negative effect on mental health, but more than 2 hours a day is when you begin to have problems. From a first wave of data from NIH’s study, it was shown that kids exposed to screens for more than two hours a day had lower scores on thinking and language tests. And brain scans of nine and ten-year olds showed thinning of the cortex, which processes information from taste, sight, touch, smell and hearing for those spending more than seven hours a day on their devices.
It remains to be seen with further studies if this is going to be a bad thing. Twenge ended with “Smartphones are great things and a wonderful piece of technology… But you have to use it for what it is good for and then put it down. It should be a tool that you use. Not a tool that uses you!”