The average 8-year-old spends eight hours a day with her head submerged in screen time — that much debated phenomenon of unplugging from the real world to live in the realm of pixels.
So far, China is the only country to formally acknowledge screen addiction as a clinical disorder.
Kids who exhibit symptoms of the addiction are housed in a facility designed to wean them, however brutal the withdrawal, from their dependence on the Internet.
Science, however, has still found many drawbacks to living in the virtual world.
1. Kids don’t learn how to play nice
Twenty years ago, when a child pinched or insulted one of his classmates, he immediately saw the effect of his actions. The other child probably cried.
Psychologists widely agree that this cause-effect relationship is critical in early adolescence to developing empathy. When smartphones and computers put a screen between the bully and the victim, even if the tormenting isn’t habitual, kids lose the instant feedback that their actions are hurtful. So, they don’t stop.
In 2014, scientists who took kids to an outdoor retreat where phones were banned saw major improvements in the kids’ ability to read nonverbal cues. To the scientists, the findings suggested that the simple act of interaction could be enough to foster a renewed sense of compassion.
2. Kids miss out on sleep
By and large, kids need sleep more than anyone. Neuroscientists have repeatedly found a nightly slumber helps encode long-term memories and preserve immune function. In babies, kids, and teens, sleep also supports overall development of their growing brains.
Using electronic devices before bed interrupts these normal, healthy rhythms.
Human brains are synced more or less with the sun. When the sun goes down, our brains help us out by releasing melatonin, a hormone that promotes deep sleep. Shining a harsh blue light in our faces stops this release, delaying the sleep cycle, and leaving us groggy in the morning.
Even if a child had a productive day in spite of her phone, late-night texting and Tweeting could mean that tomorrow is a totally different story.
3. Kids risk their physical health
Plopping in front of a screen and mindlessly snacking isn’t a new phenomenon — dads have been doing it practically since recliners were invented. But with more media now available, at all ages, the risk of weight gain also increases.
In 2013, researchers publishing in Pediatrics found prolonged exposure to TV and video games correlated positively with the accumulation of fat as kids aged. They concluded some mix of distracted eating and exposure to food advertising combined to get kids eating more.
Replacing outdoor play with online play also seems to hurt kids’ bones. Earlier this year, a study published in the British Medical Journal suggested stationary leisure time causes a loss of bone density in both the short term and for two years afterward.
4. Kids’ brains are changed
Various studies have shown that screen addictions can lead to changes in the brain’s grey matter. Kids can lose acuity in several important domains, including impulse control, organisation and planning skills, and the ability to empathise with others.
This is particularly alarming in the context of adolescents’ hormone instability. Kids are vulnerable. They’re impressionable. Smart phones typically enter their lives around age 12, right at a time when life is beginning to throw all sorts of curveballs at them.
If too much screen time saps their brains of impulse control and the ability to reason, they face greater risks for early sex, drug and alcohol abuse, and other high-risk decision making.
In other words, scientists are finding screens don’t divorce kids from just the real world, but the consequences of living in that world.
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