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Dr. Joiner Talks Screen Time and How Teens Need Diverse Activities

Dangers of screen time for teens

Earlier this month, the Guardian published an article where the author, Harry Readhead, said social media is creating a loneliness epidemic among millennials like himself. He said it’s ironic because the author and his peers grew up in the world of social media—Myspace and Facebook—having plenty of ‘friends.’ Readhead goes on to say that social media creates a false impression of connection and fuels comparison, leaving people to feel like everyone else is experiencing a more exciting and varied life. Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Florida State University and leading expert on suicide, says it isn’t social media or screen time per se that’s the problem, but a lack of diverse activities may be. What he knows is that increased use of electronic devices and social media, what Dr. Joiner and his colleagues call new media, correlates with higher levels of depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes

As young people are increasingly dying of suicide in the United States, researchers are left trying to figure out why. As is often the case, there are marked cultural differences between one generation and the next that affect wellbeing and mental health. Since the invention of the telephone, technology has been a part of the teenage experience, but the nearly ubiquitous use of smartphones and social media has altered the landscape. While kids in the ‘80s had a phone line and perhaps a shared family desktop computer with slow dial-up, and maybe their parents even had a cordless car phone shaped like a small shoebox, the generations that came after had social media and smart devices; technologies that Dr. Joiner says have pervaded young people’s day-to-day lives like no other. 

In 2017, Dr. Joiner and his colleagues’ looked at correlations between mental health and new media, watching television, and non-screen activities such as in-person social interaction. The team examined cultural changes across three generations of adolescents: GenX, Millennials, and iGen. “Electronic device and social media use are relatively new for humans. We’re not saying these technologies are the problem, but instead, exploring how they have shifted the culture in which teens exist.” While it might not be surprising that teens who experience hours of screen time day after day are adversely impacted, what stands out is that some screen time can decrease loneliness. Dr. Joiner explains that a way for readers to visualize the impact on young people is to imagine a graph with the X-axis representing new media exposure (zero hours to eight or more per day), and the Y-axis as suicide risk. It’s not a linear increase; instead, the effects look like the letter J: with low levels of exposure, kids who rarely have screen time, at higher risk than those spending an hour a day on it. Then the risk spikes upward among kids spending long hours on their technology. “What I take that to mean is that for those who moderately use screen time, there is connection going on. On the extremes, the kids on the left are deprived and not getting enough connection likely in multiple ways. The ones on the right are experiencing connection, but they’re depriving themselves of other outlets of connection, channels that are important too.”

Electronic device and social media use are pervasive in U.S. teen culture. Pew Research Center surveyed teens last year and found that they more often have access to a smartphone at home (95%) than a desktop or laptop computer (88%). They use numerous online platforms, including YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%), Snapchat (69%), Facebook (51%), and Twitter (32%); 45% said they are online ‘almost constantly.’ Dr. Joiner says because of the qualitative difference between how new media has dominated day-to-day life compared to technologies before it, the potential negatives are compounded by the amount of time many children spend on it. Teens themselves gave mixed feedback on the impacts of social media, with 45% of those surveyed by Pew Research Center reporting neither a positive nor negative effect, 31% saying it was mostly positive, and 24% reporting a mostly negative effect. The largest number of teens who reported a mostly positive effect pointed to connecting with friends and family while people in the mostly negative effect group were concerned about bullying and lack of in-person contact. 

Of course, it’s not just teens who are spending vast amounts of time on new media, but also their parents. In fact, nearly all parents surveyed by Common Sense Media check their mobile devices several times a day, and 42% do so a few times an hour. The number of parents who say they spend too much time on their mobile devices increased from 29% in 2016 to 52% in 2019. This also is likely affecting teens’ access to connect with people with whom they should: their parents. The survey also revealed the potential impact on sleep, with 68% of teens taking their electronic devices to bed and nearly a third checking their phones to respond to a notification or look at social media at least once during the night. More than a quarter of parents check their phones during the night as well. 

Researchers have found that face-to-face social interaction is more protective against loneliness than electronic communication as it gives more emotional closeness, but what impact this has on the mental wellbeing of teens warrants a closer look. When kids sit in front of a screen for hours, it means they aren’t doing other activities, like spending in-person time with friends and family, and, as previously highlighted, it may be interfering with their sleep. Dr. Joiner says new media connection is different than that which is in-person: it’s nonbiological, which doesn’t use the multiple senses people depend on in human interaction like touch, sound, and looking into another person’s eyes when speaking. “We’ve used senses in the entirety of our development and evolution, and they are crucial inputs for our brains. What happens when you start to increasingly cut off inputs to such an intricate system?” This is precisely what Dr. Gaya Dowling, director of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Project at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is examining. The study is following 11,874 youth from ages 9-10 through young adulthood and includes 2,100 kids who are twins or triplets. Among other aspects, the study is looking at how screen time affects teens’ neurological, emotional, and physical development as well as mental health. The NIH study is comprehensive, examining much more than screen time and diving into suicidal ideation, anxiety, trauma, and substance use among this large cohort, which could potentially result in the identification of biomarkers, allowing for earlier intervention. That said, how electronic devices and social media impact development is high on the list of importance, mostly because so little is known. Last year, Dr. Dowling shared with CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the first set of 4,500 brain scans showed a significant difference in the brains of children who used smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day: a thinning and maturation of the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain that processes information from the five senses. What the implications are, she doesn’t know. Not yet. 

Dr. Joiner says teens with moderate screen usage are doing quite well. They are diverse in their activities, and that may be the most crucial finding of all. “Yes, these teens play on their technology, but they’re also hanging out with friends, going outside in the sunlight, and getting physical activity. They’re getting off their screen at night and going to sleep. They are doing what we already know is good for them.” 

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