Getting Soft; Casualties of a Digital Age

This is the fourth of four articles about concerns, or the down-side of the digital age in our series, “Mastering our Digital; Recovering the Real World.” 

We spend a lot of time in front of one sort of screen or another every day.  Michigan State University, which has gathered the largest concentration of media psychologists in the world to analyze digital impact, reports that the average American spends at least six hours a day absorbing electronic media. 

There are consequences. 

Too much screen time is creating significant health-related problems.  This is especially worrisome in children and adolescents as the influence of technology increases.  Parents have some big decisions to make when it comes to how much exposure kids have to screens. All of us need to take stock of what we are doing to our bodies and brains as we spend so much of our lives sitting and interacting with these digital devices.

Soft Brains

The most complex computer ever created is the human brain.  It is changing and developing from the time we are in the womb until death. Research tells us that the most rapid time of neurological growth goes on for the first decade of life.  Every experience contributes to who a child will become.  But the changes don't stop there.  The adolescent brain undergoes dramatic brain pruning and trimming in which as much as ten percent of gray matter is cast off as unnecessary.  Neuronal connections are remapped and higher processing and executive functioning are refined.  Even in mid and old age, the brain is constantly recreating and adapting.

So, here is the problem.  We are overloading our sensory circuits with too much screen time.  In addition, studies confirm that our overuse of digital technology is shrinking gray matter which controls higher functions and impulse control, slowing down signals between brain hemispheres, reducing cortical thickness, and impairing dopamine production causing a declining sense of well being.  Overuse of screen time is even said to be contributing to depression and suicide ideation.  The bottom line is that we are making soft brains that are maladaptive.

Soft Bodies

It seems obvious that our bodies are not going to respond well to inactivity due to digital abuse.  Here are three issues we face as a result:

  1. Weight Gain and General Health~ Inactivity while interacting with screens creates a low-calorie burning scenario.  Sedentary habits lead to appetite disruption, decreased muscle mass, obesity. heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer and links to heart disease. 
  2. Sleep Disturbance ~ Digital light suppresses melatonin and sends messages to the brain that it is daytime.  Insomnia in adults and children is widespread.
  3. Eye Strain ~ Our eyes are impacted by staring at a screen for long periods of time followed by dry eyes, blurry vision, and headaches.

Toxic Trends

Excessive use of social media has been connected to risky and bad decision making according to Dar Meshi at Michigan State.  Inactive bodies and neurologically challenged brains leave us at our most vulnerable. Misinformation and so-called fake news promulgated on the internet and television cause people to develop worldviews and opinions that are not grounded in truth.  Once people believe that something false is true it is very difficult to persuade them otherwise. 

When these ideas are constantly reinforced on screens we watch for so many of our waking hours, the more divided and unreasonable we become.  With Deepfake Videos becoming widespread, the line between what is real and what is not blurs. The threat to our democratic government could be at stake as the next federal election nears.  But there is plenty we can do to break the habit and regain control of our lives. Our screens cannot pass sentence on what we are to become unless we allow it.

Three Simple Ways to Reset and Restore

  1. Daily Chores and Routines ~ Set a minimum time for family activities and chores every day while limiting screen time for everyone.  Anything more than one hour online is too much.  More than an hour of television is enough.  Thirty minutes of assigned chores will make your home a happier place.  Another thirty minutes of active play inside or out is a must to maintain healthy bodies. Add in thirty minutes of board games, card games or reading together. There are an hour and a half in which digital is out and bonding is in.
  2. Enforce Good Sleep Habits ~  All WiFi should be turned off an hour before bedtime.  Studies show that WiFi signals may suppress melatonin and increase arousal levels.  Set bedtimes for kids.  No junk food or other eating before sleep.  Keep rooms as dark as possible.
  3. Be and Play Outside ~ One of the best ways to reset the computer in our heads is exposure to sunlight, play, and exercise.  Blood pressure decreases, perspectives are broadened, memory improves and vitamin D levels increase.  All the really good stuff is outside after all.