The number of smartphone users in America has grown by more than 200 million in the past decade. Thirty-five percent of users in the U.S. check their phones, including social media, more than 50 times a day, according to Deloitte’s U.S. edition of their 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey.
These statistics are increasing during the pandemic when youth need to use digital devices more than ever — for school and to connect with friends and family they cannot see safely in person.
Emerson Hospital partnered with Turning Life On, a local grassroots movement, to identify how families can use digital media in healthy ways — during the pandemic and beyond. Together, we launched a digital wellness program and podcast series to raise awareness of the impacts electronic devices have on youth and provide research-backed advice that empowers families to make healthy choices about digital media use. Through the digital wellness podcast, experts, including a local high school student, share insights and strategies.
“Talking about digital wellness and educating our community is vital right now,” says Amy Forrer, MD, of Emerson Family Medicine in Maynard.
“For example, we need to consider the impact of everyone staring at screens, screen light and glare, improper viewing distances, and poor posture that can cause computer vision syndrome. Symptoms related to prolonged screen time include eye strain, headaches, blurred vision, and dry eyes.” In addition to the physical effects of screen time, there are crucial mental health impacts.
“Youth are in a situation where their anxiety about missing out — what we call FOMO, fear of missing out — has them glued to social media sites,” explains clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner Adair, EdD.
“Whether it is Instagram or YouTube or somebody’s Snap, it doesn’t matter. This is further compounded by how technology is designed to grab users’ attention and addict them to social media. Human brains are so vulnerable to the stimulant of a phone.”
This concept was explored in depth in the popular documentary The Social Dilemma. As we live in an always-connected world, it can be challenging to find purpose, peace, and meaning in our lives. Using technology thoughtfully to balance our online and offline lives better is essential.
“When we spend so much of our time connected to digital devices, we do not have time for quiet reflection that is essential to experiencing moments, “ says Anthony Rao, PhD. “When we are in touch with our intuition and who we are, we tend to live more peacefully and less judgmentally.”
What should people do to use digital media in healthier ways? Local high school senior and digital wellness activist Aliza Kopans says the key is to find digital balance.
“If you want digital balance, you have the power to make intentional decisions that will get you there. By changing your choices, you are not only shaping your life and improving your well-being, but you are also impacting those you care about.”
Digital Wellness Tips
How can families take steps toward healthy digital use? Here are a list of tips we compiled from our digital wellness podcast episodes that featured various digital wellness experts.
- Help children manage screen time by talking about it, without judgement, and keep communication open. Take time to reflect on how digital devices and social media impact well-being. For example, if you spend the day with family without using devices, talk about how that made everyone feel and what they noticed.
- Take breaks from the screen. For every twenty minutes of device use, put the device down and take a five-minute walk.
- Avoid phones and devices behind closed doors such as the bedroom, and keep devices in a shared location, such as in a charging station in a common area.
- Create wellness habits for all family members. Keep devices out of bedrooms at night and put phones down during meals.
- Keep your children’s social media profile settings private to limit unwanted exposure and increase their control of the content.
- Teach children that anything posted online is considered permanent — even though something might be posted online and then removed, someone can always take a screenshot of the content. If you think you might regret posting something online, it is best not to post it at all.
- Youth should feel safe reporting posts that make them uncomfortable to a trusted adult. This includes posts from an acquaintance or friend that includes concerning content, such as harming themselves or others, racist remarks, or bullying comments.
- Create expectations about the use of smartphones and stick to clear consequences for violating expectations. One way to do this is with a device contract given to them before they receive the device. There are good examples of family media plans at turninglifeon.org/family-media-plans.
- Encourage family members to try different activities that do not include screens, such as baking, creating art, going outside, exercising, playing with a pet, or volunteering time.
- Recognize we live in digital times and that it is nearly impossible for most families to go without device use for more than a day or so. The objective should not be zero device use — but if you develop small goals, such as using a device for five minutes fewer than the previous day for one month, the minutes will add up, and you will all be healthier for it.
The Six Pillars of Digital Wellness Podcast
Listen to Kelsey Magnuson, the community benefits coordinator with Emerson Hospital, and Adrienne Principe, founder and executive director of Turning Life On discuss the six pillars of digital wellness.
Listen to more from our physicians and clinicians on our Health Works Here podcast page, or through Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Spotify.