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Just about everyone is addicted to screens. What can we do about it?

Nov 1, 2017

Digital technology has infused our lives. And while it brings many benefits, we’re paying a price for having our brains constantly plugged into the digital world. At special risk: children and adolescents.

Just what is the effect of screen time on kids and parents, and what should we do about it?

Scott Becker, director of the Counseling Center at Michigan State University, and Aislinn Sapp, the behavior and retention assistant to the vice president for student affairs and services at Michigan State, joined Stateside to talk about the risks of screen time.

Listen to the full conversation above, or read highlights below.

On the effects of screen time

“So what we’re seeing are underdeveloped capacities for understanding our feelings, for naming them, for communicating those to other people, and really for putting on the emotional brakes,” said Becker. “There’s less of a capacity to self-soothe … emotional regulation, impulse control, distrust, tolerance is lower than it used to be. So a similar situation that a student might have faced ten or 20 years ago and was manageable then, is not as manageable now. We’re seeing students coming in with panic episodes and with chronic distress related to a lack of social connections.”

On the “physiological consequences” of sleeping next to your phone

Worried you might miss an important call overnight? “That happens to adults who have jobs who feel like they can’t miss an email or who might legitimately be on call,” said Sapp. She also warned about the phone’s blue light. “There’s a lot of research to suggest that that actually knocks down your melatonin, which is one of the things that’s responsible for sleep onset.”

On the addictive nature of technology

If you find yourself addicted to your phone, you're not alone. Apps and websites are “designed to be addictive. There’s a lab at Stanford, and app and web designers go there to learn how to make their programs more physiologically addictive,” said Becker. “So the product that’s being sold is not … just a tool. It can be used as a tool, but the minute we slide into social media and other forms of media consumption, there’s a sense in which we need more and more of it, or our bodies come to think that we do.”

On the effects of digitally distracted parenting

“If the kids aren’t on their own devices, which … is its own kind of problem, then they’re escalating their own behavior in order to get the attention they’re not getting from their parents,” said Sapp. “Being with [your kids] when you’re supposed to be with them is really important.”

Listen above for the full conversation.

Minding Michigan is Stateside’s ongoing series that examines mental health issues in our state.

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