The Truth About the Effects of Screen Time on Children and Teens

In the spirit of Mental Health Month, we’re spending May looking at how mobile technology and screen addiction affect mental health. In our last blog, we highlighted some enlightening but alarming facts about the dangers of too much screen time. In this post, we look at how all this tech is affecting young children and teens, and what we can do to promote healthier digital habits.

At Palm, we believe the problem with screen time is partly a matter of finding the right balance. As we age, we change how we interact with our mobile technology and we have to constantly readjust to maintain a healthy balance. As hard as it is for many adults to find the perfect balance in their digital lives, it is bound to be even harder for the younger generation of users who grew up surrounded by smartphones and tablets.

Screen Time During the Critical Period

Children are exposed to screens almost as soon as they are born in our technology-driven world, and it’s harder to resist mobile technology that is becoming smarter, bigger, more interactive, more accessible, more personalized and more entertaining with every new release.

There is no perfect solution that will work for every family, but new research shows that it’s important for parents to establish a precedence from day one because babies are essentially surrounded by screens from the day they are born. A 2019 study found that 96% of children have used mobile devices, and most started before age 1. Scientists call ages 1 to 3 the “critical period” for brain development because “changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built.”

So, if we’re introducing screens during this crucial time, we have to realize that they can slow down brain development during this foundational stage, and this may even impact our brains well into adulthood. The problem is this critical period also happens to be one of the most demanding times for parents. Introducing a screen—whether it be TV, tablet or smartphone—can be an instant solution for almost any toddler tantrum. But toddlers are the most susceptible to having an addictive relationship with screens because the neurotransmitter dopamine has a stronger pull on their developing brains. With dopamine being released every time children play their favorite cartoon on YouTube, it reinforces their reliance on that screen for reproducing feelings of pleasure—essentially making them addicted.

The hard truth is that most parents are overworked (it’s in the job description), so it makes sense that we rely so heavily on screens to entertain, educate, soothe, or simply distract our babies and toddlers when necessary. Despite the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of excessive screen time, a recent study found that “parents gave children devices when doing house chores (70%), to keep them calm (65%) and at bedtime (29%).” Basically, a phone in a toddler’s hand can give busy parents some much needed rest. Most parents have perfectly good intentions and try to manage screen time because they instinctively know that too much of it is not a good thing. But, without setting guidelines and closely monitoring usage, it is nearly impossible to figure out how much screen time is healthy for your child.

baby with phone

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) actually suggests keeping babies younger than 18 months old away from screens altogether, and only letting toddlers have one hour per day. Even if the AAPs guidelines are not realistic for most busy families, their suggestions highlight just how wary the experts are on screen time. The clear consensus is that too much screen time can have tangible effects on the developmental state of young brains. Scientific research is becoming more prevalent showing correlations between screen time and depression, and we highlighted some very interesting findings in our previous blog post. As psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman puts it, even educational apps can “unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains… the ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”

Screens are no substitute for personal relationships and real world interactions. A recent USA Today article titled “Kids’ screen time tied to poor health” reviewed a study that showed how screens are causing children to be less active and stated the negative impact this has on their mental and physical health. Researchers from another study found that “excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally.” But, the harmful effects of digital addiction don’t just stop with babies and toddlers. Smartphones can create a wholly unique set of problems for teenagers and adults alike.

Today’s Connected Teen

The dangers of digital addiction and its impact on mental health are arguably more severe among teenagers when you consider how intrinsic smartphones are in their social lives. In fact, teenagers today, often classified as “Gen Z,” “digital natives” or “iGen,” are essentially the first generation to grow up with smartphones as an inherent part of their reality. This means they have a profoundly different relationship with mobile technologies, and they tend to spend the most time looking down at their screens.

According to the Washington Post, “the percentage of teens who had smartphones jumped from 37% in 2012 to 73% in 2015 to 89% at the end of 2016.” But the more alarming fact is that scientists also found a correlating jump in teen depression during these years: “from 2009 to 2017, rates of depression among those ages 14 to 17 in the U.S. jumped more than 60%.”

Dr. Jean Twenge is a psychologist who literally wrote the book on iGen, and the title alone is very informative: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. The book explains that there are certainly some benefits to being super connected—iGen is generally more focused on tolerance, safety and equality. But, the flipside is that teens are also growing up less prepared for adulthood and more likely to feel depressed, anxious and lonely. She explains, “born after 1995, iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone. With social media and texting replacing other activities, iGen spends less time with their friends in person—perhaps why they are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness.”

To put it another way, most teenagers have 24/7 access to mobile devices that are making them feel isolated and despondent. Not surprising, teens spend the majority of their screen time on social media–up to nine hours a day! According to Twente, this time spent on social apps is the main culprit in teen anxiety, depression and loneliness. That is, social media is making teens less social—and FOMO is the perfect manifestation of this phenomenon.

palm in bed

FOMO

At its best, social media keeps us connected to friends and family all over the world. At its worst, it makes us jealous, stressed and gives us that unavoidable fear of missing out. We’ve all experienced some sort of FOMO while browsing social media… it’s hard not to feel envious when your best friends are at the beach while you’re stuck at home writing a paper.

While most use the acronym lightheartedly, FOMO can be harmful in many ways. Not only can it make us a little jealous, it can cause undue stress and depression. But FOMO also increases our dependence on social media, gluing us to apps instead of encouraging us to go outside and create our own memories.

Nomophobia

Teens not only have FOMO-induced anxiety, some even suffer from the irrational fear of simply not having their phone with them—this is often called nomophobia. Psychiatrists say “nomophobia comes with a set of identifiable symptoms: increased heart rate and blood pressure, shortness of breath, anxiety, nausea, trembling, dizziness, depression, discomfort, fear and panic.”

In a recent study where researchers asked children to give up their phones, they “found that they performed worse on mental tasks when they were in ‘withdrawal’... They also felt a sense of loss, or lessening, of their extended self—their phones.” It’s worrying to hear that teens feel so connected to their smartphones and social media that they feel it is a true part of their identity. Just like with FOMO, nomophobia is bound to be more severe among teens who grew up and established unhealthy digital habits at a much younger age. Once again, it comes down to finding balance during those critical early years.

Aim for Less Screen Time This Summer

It’s immediately clear that FOMO, nomophobia, depression, anxiety, digital addiction and everything else are problems that extend to smartphone users of any age. If you own a smartphone, it often takes serious and deliberate effort to put it aside so you can enjoy the real world. Even though new studies are slow to publish, we can try to be more proactive by encouraging our young ones to live life outside of the screen, and summer is the perfect time to do this.

Parents often struggle to fill all the extra free time their children have during the summer. With modern screens being unnecessarily distracting, it’s easy to stay inside and watch a show. But, the science unanimously shows that “cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills” are best developed in children through real world interactions—not through any educational app or game. So, encourage your children to set down the phone, get outside, enjoy the weather and hang out with their friends. Of course, this is easier said than done when kids have so many digital options.

kids laughing

Palm was created for people who want to spend less time looking at a screen and more time in the real world. While smartphones are generally getting bigger, we made Palm smaller. As we developed Palm we also learned that willpower alone isn’t going to solve digital addiction, so we packed it with software that makes it easier to tune out. This is why adults, athletes, minimalists and professionals alike love Palm.

Parents also love it as a first phone for their children because it enables them to stay connected when needed, but not constantly consumed by a huge screen. The credit card-sized Palm is easy for small hands to hold and can fit into even the tiniest pocket. When used with Life Mode it is easy to limit distracting notifications. Additional apps, like Google Family Link and Bark make it easy for parents to curate child-friendly content, monitor screen time and track their children. Parents love the peace of mind they get by knowing they can control content and reach their kid’s Palm at any time.

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A Healthier Digital Future with Palm

Our devotion to researching the effects of screen time on mental health is born out of our founding principles—to create a better digital future by designing devices that make it possible to live life outside of the screen. The beauty of Palm is that no matter how old you are or how you use your phone, it can allow you to spend less time looking down and more time enjoying the real world. But since having the right device is only half the battle, we’ll be continuing the conversation about mental health and screen time in our next few blogs, so stay tuned all May.

There’s never been a better time to get a Palm. You can purchase Palm as your primary phone for $299. Or, you can purchase it as a companion device that links with your existing smartphone—allowing you to leave the big phone and home and bring along your Palm when you want something smaller and less demanding. Get yours today!

Don’t miss our Director of Marketing speak more on this topic at The Assembly next Wednesday, May 22 at 6:30pm. This is a free event, but space is limited, so make sure to RSVP today: https://www.theassembly.com/schedule?event=79YjfOejGxspG1vrKbJu19

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