How the Technologically-Immersive Culture is Wrecking Our Youth’s Health & Well-Being

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In 2011, the Journal of Pediatrics published a review of studies looking at the effects of screen time on youth and interventions to target its reduction. Findings indicated that increased screen time is consistently associated with poor outcomes in physical health, academics, traffic safety, aggression, compliance, depressed mood, attention, and creative play in youth (AAP, 2011). Today, the average youth spends more than 7 hours, 30 minutes exposed to technology a day, but close to 30% of this time is engaged in multi-tasking (e.g., watching television while texting). Thus, the total exposure is closer to 10 hours, 45 minutes, which is almost 44% more than in 1999, and exposure has only continued to grow.

Despite the warnings, trends have continued seemingly unabated and the consequences have grown in regards to our youth’s mental health & overall well-being. Amidst the promise of benefits that technology can provide if used strategically, there is an app full of reasons we as parents and a community should be gravely concerned about where our youth are headed. Here are a few:

The great sleep recession:  Sleep affects almost every area of physical and psychological functioning. 85% percent of teens sleep with mobile devices by their side. They are afraid to miss a 2 AM text. What they are really missing is an opportunity for a much needed good night’s sleep.

Sexting:  Sexting didn’t exist until mobile devices became available. Now teens are using apps that can’t even be tracked to send racy photos at alarming rates. If the photos weren’t enough, youth who engage in sexting are 4-7 times more likely to engage in sexual behaviors, be promiscuous earlier, and physically mature at a younger age.

Cyberbullying:  Cyberbullying is another issue that didn’t become prominent until mobile devices entered the youth world. Bullying and teasing have always been an issue. But now the number and breadth of ways that a youth can be bullied has expanded infinitely, and both the bully and the bullied remain affected as long as a digital trace endures.

Distractions galore:  The average adolescent female sends over 4,000 texts per month. That’s approximately 8 texts per waking hour. And it’s not even their day job (school). Question: “Where do they find the time?”  Answer: “In the middle of everything else.”

Traffic accidents:  The leading cause of death with teens is traffic accidents. The leading cause of traffic accidents with teens is texting. Drunk driving is second. More than 50% of teens admit to texting while driving. Even more likely do.

Classroom woes:  Mobile devices in classrooms, whether it is the ring, buzz, or all the other potential diversions, are clearly associated with decreased learning, retention, and efficiency. Think passing notes and classroom shenanigans were bad?  Try being a teacher and competing with mobile devices today, especially when classroom bans are often not reinforced.

Pornography:  The average male first views pornography by age eleven, mostly online. By the time they are young adults, they access it on average 50 times a week. Any wonder that pornography profits out-gross NBC, ABC, and CBS combined? Mobile devices make it all too easy.

Social skills declining: Eye contact, gestures, and basic interactive skills have long been the basis of relationships. But increasing evidence indicates that even the most core skills are being affected by mobile devices. Try having a conversation with someone who seems only half there; then imagine if this was the norm. No wonder young people are flocking to the digital world.

Obesity/sedentary behaviors:  By now, we all know the dire news about pediatric obesity and Type II diabetes in youth. Ironically, mobile devices encourage anything but mobility. The apps that purport to increase activity don’t have the data to support their claims. Meanwhile, the only safe way to game, text, message, or the like is to stop moving, which is one huge problem many overweight youth face today.

Brain development:  This one goes deep into the neurons and the glial cells to areas of functioning that affect all the previously mentioned domains. Nothing looms more important to our youth than the development of skills such as emotional regulation, impulse control, sustained attention, and “if…then” consequential thinking. They only have a little over twenty years to develop these skills before the brain reaches its maturation; mobile devices are not helping.

When conversations come up about technology use and youth, I often hear that “better” means this: greater ease and convenience, increased access to a wide variety of information, and more emotional, instantaneous experiences. If this is how we define better, then I have little argument that our youth have benefited from the technologically immersive culture of today.

But if I shift the definition of “better” to one that encompasses the four primary dimensions of our being—physical, psychological, social, and spiritual—we suddenly find ourselves, as parents, in an uncomfortable place. As noted above, I can point to many studies that suggest outcomes no one desires.

If we as parents and a community consider all of this, it must make us uneasy about the current technological climate when it comes to our youth. Yet, I wonder: Would we ever condone such a harmful lifestyle for our children if it wasn’t one which we ourselves embraced in much the same way?  I truly think this issue is the most important of its time, even beyond the concerns I have raised. But amid many different opinions, I will offer a frank one:

The devices that have been left to our kids are not “child’s play,” and should not be treated as such.  At any given time, our youth can run up thousands of dollars in bills, view graphic and disturbing sexual images, be awoken with frightening messages, reach anyone, anywhere, at any time, and live an otherwise distracted, detached life.

For what? Convenience? Access? Experience? Keeping up with the trends? Our kid’s brains only have a little over 20 years to develop the core they need for their rest of their lives. There are much more important things to pursue.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. I agree that the fabric of our society is deteriorating due to eroding communication, thanks in large part to how we are applying technology. Just last week I went out to dinner with a friend, and there was a family of 6 sitting nearby–parents and 4 kids, seemed to be ages 10-16, in that range. While they ate with one hand, each one had a device in the other, all 6 heads were down, all eyes on the iphones, and complete silence between them. I don’t judge, but it’s not my world. I’d HATE that in my circles. These are not relationships I’d want, with people that do that.

    However, when reading this article, Anthony Weiner came to mind. Also, all those pictures of Hillary in the media staring at her iphone. And, Mr. Trump and his Twitter rants, et al.

    So is it really the technology that is causing this social breakdown? Or is that merely a catalyst for what has always been under the surface, and kids are still taking their example from adults?

    I think when we’re looking at social deterioration, technology may highlight what is already there by bringing it to the surface. Still, the root cause of such deterioration is always going to be the choices made by the members of that society moment by moment, based on the examples of the adults–our “leaders” and “authority figures,” and the messages they send to the youth of our society, through their words and/or deeds–mostly taking their cue from the actions of the adults they witness, either in person or in the media. How else do kids learn?

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    • Hi Alex,

      As always, you bring up great points. I certainly think it is a combination both of what technology allows us to do (for the worse in this case) and how people model technology use for others. But I have to say that in working with teens (with the exception of a small subsection that use it responsibly), they simply lack the development and life experiences to use it well (of course, many adults with the life experiences and brain development struggle, too). Therefore, these incredible innovations, when placed in many youth’s hands, simply are so in tune to the immediacy and gratification and connectedness that they desire that they simply struggle to stem the tide of immersion unless their parents and other caregivers set clear limitations about what they can have, and what they can do. I notice this even in my own kids, who have significant limitations compared to most of their peers and engage in all sorts of hands-on and face to face activities. But if left unabated, they would easily engage in activities of distraction and immediacy for extended periods of time just like they would raid the candy jars until their stomachs start really hurting.

      It is a massive issue, and only getting bigger. And honestly, generations of people are changing right in front of us in ways that belie health from a social, psychological, physical, and spiritual standpoint unless something markedly changes. We will see.

      Thanks as always.

      jim

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      • Hi Jim, yes, even though generations, by nature, evolve out of what came before, I do agree that the post-tech, internet, and cell phone culture has been quite the leap in evolution in one sense, while being isolating, crazy-making, soulless, and socially fragmenting in other ways. It certainly stands to reason that when electronic communication replaces real time heart to heart communication and interaction, we are losing something vital to humanity. These are red flags that are best paid attention to.

        The future is unfolding now as we speak, so indeed we shall see what that will continue to look like. Good stuff as always, Jim, thank you!

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    • Interesting that you speak of examples. We now have a president-elect who can’t keep himself from tweeting whenever the urge strikes him. And he tweets things that are not substantiated and proven. Here we have one of the most powerful men in the entire world who can’t, or won’t, control his obsession with his phone and tweeting.

      I agree, kids are only following the example of the adults around them. I find it a little much that kids who are only eight or nine years old have their own, personal phones. It boggles my mind but then I was born in 1948, when automobiles were about the most we had in technology. I was born into a house that had no plumbing, no electricity, and we heated with wood stoves and lit kerosene lamps in the evening. It was a far simpler life in a far simpler time.

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      • Hi Steve,

        Really appreciate your perspective. Technology has brought us many things, but no doubt it has not brought a sense of deep peace and contentment with what the world offers. Sometimes less really is more. One of my greatest joys these days is witnessing my kids experience people and nature in an authentic way – when you see it happen, it is so rich, so intimate, so beautiful to watch how it unveils itself. And yet, when others, even little children, struggle to see the world outside of how technology presents it, I am saddened.

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  2. I get stuck on this computer all the time, let me just check my favorite websites and make a few comments… Then what I planned to be 20 minutes turns into 4 hours. Maybe its too comfortable , I have the laptop connected to a big flat screen and use a wireless keyboard and mouse. I don’t have cable channels only WIFI but that’s all you need to stream most of them.

    I Have a flip phone and don’t do the phone thing but when I see the cell phone addicts I see similar behavior as with trichotillomania. People who have trichotillomania have an irresistible urge to pull or twist on their hair. It includes the criterion of an increasing sense of tension before pulling the hair and gratification or relief when pulling the hair. The same with people who bite fingernails, increasing sense of tension then relief.

    There was this girl at the AA meeting, always messing with the phone, always, and I jokingly said try putting it away and she did then I said to try to resist that rising anxiety your going to get telling you take take the phone back out again for relief. We were friendly enough the first part, put it away was funny but she did not find that second part about the rising anxiety funny at all cause I was right.

    Hey check this out , cell phone jammers LOL http://www.google.com/search?q=cell+phone+jammers

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  3. I keep wondering what conversations come up about this topic. Were these conversations spoken or tapped? Young people these days are afraid to speak aloud. Many have “phone phobia” and resort to texting since they seem unable to carry on a spoken conversation. I believe this is because they are out of practice. More texting means less speaking, which means less familiarity with how to speak. Then, young people (and some old folks, too) actually fear speaking aloud. They are uncomfortable. “Shoot me an email instead,” they say. Or, “Hop on Facebook and let’s chat.” Screw it! I want real speaking! What ends up happening is that we have a silent world, tapping away. I’m all for correspondence when distance, cost, or imprisonment keeps us from doing otherwise, but if we can speak, we should! It’s sad, silent, and very lonely. I finally decided that I will not carry on a texting-only relationship. Speak, or just get out of my life.

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    • Amen, Julie. Beautifully said. Like any skill that requires engagement and tolerance of discomfort, when we fall out of practice because of “easier” alternatives, it is very unlikely we are going back. The art of the conversation is being lost by many. It is one thing to text and see about getting an extra gallon of milk on the way home, but it is whole other phenomenon when breakups and seriously personal conversations are repeatedly occurring by sent, not spoken, word that is fractured and often reactive. Certainly not a good thing for our human development.

      By the way, you might appreciate that years ago after college, I made the conscious decision to be one of the 2% of my age group who doesn’t have a mobile device. Other than an occasional inconvenience, it is absolutely wonderful, and I believe that it affords me clarity of mind, efficiency, moments of reflection, decreased anxiety, and the like that so many others don’t have. If you are curious more about this and our family’s low tech decisions, feel free to check out this article on my Just Thinking column:

      http://www.stmarys.org/app/files/public/689/november-2014—dear_friends_and_family.pdf

      Appreciate your thoughts.

      jim

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      • Jim, Why apologize? No need to do so. Nor give any excuses nor reasons. It’s a decision, period. Like, Do you want cream in your coffee?

        Years ago I gave up driving. No, not because I couldn’t drive. Not because I got a DUI. Because I didn’t like driving. I didn’t like being dependent on a hunk of metal I couldn’t carry in a knapsack. So I stopped. I believe I was around 30 years old and now I am nearly 60. What happened? A few friends called me and said they didn’t want to be friends anymore, because of my “decision.” Interesting, eh?

        I was reminded of another “decision” I made at age 21. I was going to stop having sex. I made this decision because as a woman, I didn’t want to be used for my body. I wanted to be appreciated for something other than t*ts and a**. So, lo and behold, a number of my male friends told me they did not want to be friends anymore due to my “decision.” Yet we had not been sexual partners. So I guess they’d been hanging around for the t*ts and a**.

        There’s no place in my life for users. I didn’t want to be a taxi. I lost my riders and those who wanted me only for sex. Who remained? Real friends. Leaving Facebook and ditching those that kept me at arm’s length, refusing to speak to me, meant those that were willing to speak remained. And it meant having the time and energy to seek out real friends, too.

        Where do you find them? Mostly, on the bus, at the bus stop, on the streets, at the food pantries, and where the most impoverished hang out. I make a point of thanking the bus driver, thanking the traffic cop who helps me out, and trying to help out the homeless folk. There are so many. I speak to them and befriend them as much as I can. Sometimes I clue them in on how to find food, water, or a place to spend the night, find cover from the rain, or keep warm.

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        • Yes, Julie, as you say, in the end, apologies are not needed (although part of it was certainly done tongue-in-cheek, as one of my friends – still a friend – told me that was no apology at all. He was right. It just my way of saying this is where I am going). In the end, we all make conscious decisions such as these because they are driven by matters more important than what we are leaving behind. And with me not having a mobile device, or my wife and I not having two cars for the past 10 years despite going on 7 kids (as I think I noted in the article, I bike, bus, or run to work most days), we are in essence leaving behind those who feel that relationships should be grounded on different factors than we perceive.

          I applaud you for your principled-driven life of deeper matters. Too many people today are living largely on the principle of convenience and trendiness, and eventually I believe (and already feel) that it is catching up with our society.

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  4. Certainly using computers much of the day, and especially those really tiny mobile devices, it does change people. Kids take to it easier, but they are also probably more likely to be seriously effected by it.

    What to use to compensate for it?

    How about Tantric Sex?

    Nomadic

    Move from Talk to Action, Please Join:
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    • Hi Andrew,

      Your comment made me smile. It also spurred a reflection of my own:

      “Young man forgets that clouds are formed from the ground up.”

      Before I respond any further, I want to give you the chance to elaborate on your summary statement. I think there is a great interaction waiting. On a related note, I would love to hear your thoughts on global warming as I think there is a great parallel to the media/technology issue of which I speak.

      Regards,

      Jim Schroeder

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  5. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
    From up and down and still somehow
    It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
    I really don’t know clouds at all”
    — Joni Mitchell

    But they tell us old folks we sound like broken records. I think we shine like diamonds. We break all the records. Keep it up.

    Julie

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