Media has changed all of our day to day lives and there have been massive changes in the way media and technology intersect with our work and lives. Mobile phones allow engagement nearly all times almost anywhere. When is the last time you left your house without your phone or went 24 hour without logging on to an electronic source? Our devices are mobile and seem indispensable. Eight out of ten adults and 9/10 young adults reach for their phone within 15 minutes of waking. On average, adults check their phones more than 34 times per day. Young people receive an average of over 100 texts per day. US Teens spend an average of 9 hours per day using media and these numbers are outside time spent online for school and homework. American children spend more time watching TV and video games than doing anything else besides sleeping.
We know that excessive screen time can be detrimental to developing youth. Children who watch more screen media early in life show delays in language and reading and display increased rates of hyperactivity. Higher screen usage in toddlers has been associated with poor emotion regulation and social delays. Even having a TV on in the background has been shown to lead to irregular sleep patterns and sleep dysfunction in infants. One study found that background TV reduced the length of time spent in play and also reduced children's focused attention during play. Children require hands on exploration and social interaction with caregivers to develop cognitive, language and social emotional skills. Screens are not responsive nor are parents who are on devices themselves. Parent(s) or caregiver(s) media habits can influence the media habits of their children. Some high quality shows such as PBS content can improve cognitive and language skills in youth aged 3-5 but time spent watching should be limited throughout the day. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatricians) recommends discouraging screen media other than video chatting for youth under 18 months. The AAP recommends parents of children 18-24 months who want to introduce screen media to co view with their children , limit to less than one hour per day and to choose high quality content such as PBS.
There are some potential benefits of media use such as increased socialization and communication, opportunities for community engagement, the ability to complete homework and group projects online, improved communication with friends and family who live far away, support networks, and the potential to find information quickly and efficiently. It is important that youth learn to use media responsibly. Advertisers are becoming better and better at blurring boundaries and embedding messages online targeted at youth. In addition, media exposure to risk y behavior is associated with earlier initiation of these behaviors. Youth need to develop a basic understanding of the ways media can shape our perception of the world and the motives and goals that shape media in a world where computers are learning our preferences and suggesting things based on what we may like. This can influence our buying tendencies but also what we come to think of as normal. Misinformation and bias are present in media and it can be hard to determine what to trust. Studies show that youth feel confident using and searching online but not necessarily evaluating what they find. Children and parents need assistance in locating reliable, age appropriate educational content. Common Sense Media provides age and quality ratings for websites.
Media use can also lead to multitasking when completing work or homework. It takes time to reorient after a transition to a different activity which can lead to slowing of work and cognitive fatigue. An example is a teen texting and completing homework. It may seem like she is doing two things at once but she is actually performing two tasks back to back. Multitasking can decrease productivity, impair memory, impair studying and grades, interfere with information processing and increase stress.
Excessive media use is also tied to difficulties with sleep. Studies have shwon that each additional hour of evening media us is associated with a significant increase in sleep poblems. Mobile phone use and the number of devices in the bedroom have been shown to affect sleep quality in teens. The light from screens interfere with our bodies natural secretion of melatonin, which is a hormone that is secreted to promote sleep and regulates our sleep wake cycle. Increased media use has also been associated with increased sedentary activity and increased rates of obesity.
An additional concern relating to social media relates to privacy. Research suggests that youth do care about privacy and personal reputation but may not have sufficient tools to keep private what they wish to protect. Developmentally, until the age of 25 the frontal lobe of the brain is still developing. This is the part of the brain involved in planning ahead and anticipating the future Being popular on social network sites can carry meaningful social benefits for youth and they may not think about long term consequences such as the fact that content posted often becomes public in some way and can be difficult or impossible to remove. We are also at risk of forming social comparisons online that can be detrimental to their own mental health. When we are constantly seeking out or viewing people's best moments we can begin to negatively compare our own social life to what we see online affecting our self esteem. Some teens are glued to their devices afraid they are going to miss out on something. Not being in the know can lead to anxiety and constant checking of electronics This constant activity on devices can limit moments of solitude or reflection, compromise our ability to relax, and challenge creativity. In addition, a teen who receives mainly texts or has mainly connections online will miss out on verbal and auditory cues such as eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice. These cues are important as they strengthen our bond with others, allow us to fully listen and increase our development of empathy for others.
There are several steps we can take to unplug and reconnect with the world around us.
Start by becoming aware of your media usage and how it fits into your life. There are apps for logging media use that give you a daily summary of how often you pick up your phone and breaks down how much time you spend on different applications.
Reevaluate how you want to spend your time and become a bit more mindful when going to unlock your phone. Are you being reflexive or do you have a purpose?
Turn off notifications, send away messages and prohibit push notifications.
Keep screen media out of the bedroom at least one hour prior to bedtime
Put devices away while doing homework or completing tasks. Boundaries help us focus on one thing at a time.
Start a device free dinner. Family dinner has been related to positive outcomes but devices can easily disrupt conversations.
Read and teach youth about privacy settings. Before posting, think to yourself if you would feel comfortable having your boss or parent see the content. Remember that companies often sell information and that others can take screenshots of things prior to you deleting them.
Promote physical activity and sleep hygiene strategies
Not all screens are created equal. Evaluate whether apps are fostering imagination or whether they are causing you to go on autopilot. When we "zone out" for hours we are missing time to connect with others, check in with ourselves and depriving our bodies of the physical activity that it craves.
Cultivate in person meaningful relationships and try not to let social media function as a substitute.
Start conversations with youth about social media early. Online communication about online citizenship and safety are important. Teach youth about being wary of online solicitation, what to do if they see or experience cyberbullying online and to treat others with respect both online and offline.
Turn TVs off when not in use
Be a media mentor and model the behavior that you want youth to exhibit. Unplug from devices and spend time connecting with family.
Consider developing a Family Media Use Plan at healthychildren.org
The most important thing is to find balance and teach self regulation. Teens online identity may be strongly intertwined with sense of self and offline identity. A balanced approach does not necessarily mean eliminating or reducing media but instead focusing on self awareness and self regulation. The degree of parental monitoring should be dependent on age, developmental maturity and offline and online risky behavior. It is important to try to help youth master the skills they need to navigate social media successfully in order to help them develop more control and security in their offline and online world.
Articles that Dr. Miller has co-authored regarding social media and mental health:
Belfort, E. L., & Miller, L. (2018). Relationship Between Adolescent Suicidality, Self-Injury, and Media Habits. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 27(2), 159-169. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2017.11.004
"The Effect of Social Networking Sites on the Relationship between Perceived Social Support and Depression." Psychiatry Research, vol. 246, 2016, pp. 223–229., doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2016.09.018.