Screen Time: Time to Screen?


Art Credits to Emma Bertram!

Jimmy Gao ‘20

Constant use of our computers, smartphones and tablets seems like an unavoidable byproduct of life in the 21st century. But do the illuminated pixels before our eyes today threaten to dim the quality of our lives tomorrow?

Parenting has never been easier — or harder. Nowadays, paying a babysitter is a one-time purchase — and it’s called an iPad. The “three Rs” of fundamental skills students learn in elementary school – reading, writing, and arithmetic – may soon become replaced by the “three Ts” – texting, tapping, and typing – instead. Yet as much as creators of technological innovation have hoped to improve the quality of life of its users, in reality, they may be achieving the opposite. The 2018 American Family Survey finds that overuse of technology has now overtaken drugs, sex, and bullying as the greatest parental worry in the country. But it’s not just parents who find themselves daunted by the prospects of living in an increasingly technology-reliant society: “Generation Z”, the group of children born in the mid-90s and the early 2000s, are the first generation of children to never have known a world without glaring computer screens and widely available Internet access. In a sense, the poster children of Generation Z (who now make up almost the entirety of the high school and college population) are the guinea pigs in the great experiment that is the World Wide Web — and some fear that their first incursion into the digital way of life may have irrevocable harms for decades to come.

The quantifiable effects of screen time on the “Internet generation”’s physical health is just as worrying as it is clear-cut. There exists no doubt that while our eyes and fingers are moving more quickly than they have in the past, our bodies are moving less. Sedentary lifestyles are fast becoming the norm in a “screen-and-sit” culture of work and leisure. It is no coincidence, however, that the elevated prevalence of smartphones, tablets, and computers has occurred alongside rising obesity and heart disease rates. Researchers have found that teens who found themselves in front of a TV or computer for more than five hours a day had a 78% higher likelihood of obesity than those that did not. It doesn’t take a professional nutritionist to reach the conclusion than more sitting and less moving doesn’t do the body’s overall condition any favors, but often overlooked in the discussion of technology and health are the changing societal expectations and customs that have made our diets even more exiguous than ever. American school culture and work culture has become more demanding and screen-reliant than ever, and those seeking to find respite from the fast pace of their obligations look to their TVs and tablets as a form of relaxation. Many students, facing burnout from mounting responsibilities, turn to “snacking and screening”, coupling a norm of increased compulsive eating with a growing deficiency of physical activity. Add to that the undeniable science behind the parental axiom of “no screen time before bedtime” — that exposure to blue light at late hours of the night can inhibit the body’s natural sleep cycle — and it appears as if smartphones are causing teenagers to eat worse, sleep worse, and move less. Indeed, studies have established that increased screen time has correlations with higher consumption of sugary beverages as well as insufficient amounts of sleep.  In a world where “work hard, play hard” is now synonymous with “work stationary, play stationary”, it certainly seems as if screens have done little but to deteriorate Generation Z’s overall physical health.

Less conclusive are attempts to measure the impacts of computers, tablets, and phones on students’ mental health and social well-being. Screens have joined coffee and wine in the elusive “Researchers Still Can’t Decide Whether It’s Good For You Or Not” club, even after endless amounts of studies. Every week, a new report emerges: Technology is incredibly harmful to children’s mental health! Technology is beneficial to children’s mental health! Technology has no effect on children’s mental health! Studies can never decide. Most psychologists and experts, however, have found that the problems with screen usage lie less in the inherent act of looking at a screen and more in the associated habits and tendencies teenagers have created as a result of their constant online connection. Social media usage is often singled out as a problem, but discussing the pitfalls associated with media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are too nuanced and well-documented to be worth mindlessly repeating again. Nevertheless, it is safe to conclude that an overuse of social media without proper consideration and awareness of the idea that social media appearances may not reflect reality can pose a threat to teens’ mental health.

The key to social media use, just as is with nearly everything else in life, is moderation. “Internet addiction”, once a rarely-seen phenomenon, has only grown more problematic as technology has advanced. While computers may certainly be fundamental to work and play, human relationships, varied interests and hobbies, and academic and social achievements are, too — the Internet should enhance the quality of our lives, not control it. Yet with smartphones in our pockets and computers in front of our eyes during nearly every waking moment, a compulsion to always stay online can quickly develop, and heavy screen usage can have pernicious effects on attention spans and self-discipline. “I’ve just gotten into the habit of checking my phone every few minutes,” Ashwath Subramanian ‘20 laments. “It’s like when you’re bored, and you keep on opening and closing the fridge every so often expecting there to be something new.” With how widespread screens have become, it can be difficult for adolescents to recognize whether or not their tech habits have become problematic or not, especially if everyone around them acts the same way. “I mean, yeah, I suppose it’s a problem,” Subramanian remarks. “But everyone uses their phone all the time. Who’s going to get on their high horse and tell me to change?”

A nuanced problem requires nuanced solutions, and Generation Z can hold a tighter grip on their future if only they are willing to loosen their grip on their phones. To regard “screen time” in an overly general sense would be to make a mistake, several researchers have argued. Typing an essay for eight hours and playing games for eight hours are both “screen time”, but their effects on teenage development are remarkably different. “Not all screen time is created equal, but most studies to date treat it as monolithic,” psychologist Amy Orben writes in a Wired article entitled “Screens Might Be as Bad for Mental Health As… Potatoes”. “That’s like asking if food is good or bad for you.” Indeed, acting on the behavioral changes needed to mitigate the negative effects of technology usage depend mostly on personal use habits and self-discipline; only when students feel as if their screen time habits have become problematic will they have the agency to change them. But Generation Z taking a step back and viewing their own Internet habits from a critical lense is crucial for future generations — as the first “Internet generation”, they will serve as a role model for their younger siblings, children and grandchildren who will inherit the technology-centric culture that we have created. “It’s hard for my parents to criticize me for using my phone all the time, since they do the exact same thing,” Amy Huang ‘21 comments. “That’s probably not a good thing — but I guess it’s one I have the power to change.”

It’s come time for the detractors and grumblers to temper their expectations: our entry into the age of the Internet was irreversible, and Generation Zers will never give up their smartphones or their laptops. “Let the problems come,” Huang continues, waving her phone defiantly. “I’m fine just the way I am.” The kids (and their screens) will almost certainly be alright — but perhaps with just a little more cognizance of the nature of the uncharted territory that the current generation of adolescents and young adults are currently wading into will they be able to ensure that their futures are just as bright as their screens.