(Dr. Mercola) The fact that teenagers spend a lot of time using media (TV, movies, video games, social media, etc.) probably comes as no surprise. What is shocking, however, is just how much time they’re actually spending, which was revealed by a large-scale study conducted by the non-profit Common Sense Media.1
James Steyer, chief executive officer and founder of Common Sense Media, told CNN: “the sheer volume of media technology that kids are exposed to on a daily basis is mind-boggling.”2
Indeed, the report found U.S. teens spend about nine hours daily using media, and this only includes media used for enjoyment purposes. Media used at school or for homework purposes isn’t even included.
Media Usage Is ‘Reshaping Childhood and Adolescence’
The nine-hour figure includes media of all types.
When just media on screens (laptops, smartphones, and tablets) is counted, teens spent more than 6.5 hours daily, while tweens spent more than 4.5 hours. Steyer, who authored “Talking Back to Facebook: The Common Sense Guide to Raising Kids in the Digital Age,” told CNN:3
“I just think that it should be a complete wake-up call to every parent, educator, policymaker, business person, (and) tech industry person that the reshaping of our media tech landscape is first and foremost affecting young people’s lives and reshaping childhood and adolescence.”
Indeed, today’s young people have become avid multitaskers, often using media while engaged in other activities. Half of teens reported they “often” or “sometimes” use social media or watch TV while doing homework, while 60 percent say they text, and 75 percent listen to music while doing so.
Two-thirds of the kids polled believed TV or texting had no influence on the quality of their schoolwork, while 50 percent believed social media usage made no difference.
However, research (and experience) will tell you otherwise. A study conducted by Stanford University researchers found, for instance, that “media multitaskers” performed worse on tests of cognitive control and have a “distinct approach to fundamental information processing.”4
13-Year-Olds May Check Social Media 100 Times a Day
A CNN study, “#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” gives an inside glimpse into what it’s like to spend your adolescent years growing up in the age of social media.
The social media feeds of more than 200 eight graders were analyzed by child development experts, revealing what’s actually said, and why some 13-year-olds say without their phones they feel like dying. Study co-author and child clinical psychologist Marion Underwood told CNN:5
“I think they’re addicted to the peer connection and affirmation they’re able to get via social media …
To know what each other are doing, where they stand, to know how many people like what they posted, to know how many people followed them today and unfollowed them … that I think is highly addictive.”
The study also surveyed parents and teens, revealing more insider clues about what’s really happening online. Teens use social media as a way to monitor their own popularity, and when they’re not online, they worry they’re missing something (either positive or negative), which leads to compulsive checking.
More than half of the teens (61 percent) said they check their social media to see if their posts are getting “likes” and comments, while 36 percent said they did so to see if their friends are doing things without them. Another 21 percent said they check to make sure no one said anything mean about them.
Teens’ Emotional Health Tied to Their Social Media Accounts
The researchers were surprised by the “level of profanity, explicit sexual language, and references to drugs” used by the eighth graders, and also noted 15 percent of the teens received inappropriate photos (and those who did reported 50 percent higher levels of distress).
There are subtle ways that teens are being hurt on social media too, which even vigilant parents may not recognize. For instance, teens may post a group photo and intentionally not “tag” someone.
They may also share photos from outings with someone who wasn’t invited just to hurt their feelings. Underwood told CNN:6
“When we were young, I didn’t know every party I wasn’t invited to. I didn’t see pictures every time friends, good friends, got together without me. Now they see all of it in real time …
And I think that’s very hard to take. And we maybe haven’t prepared them as well … to deal with it in the best way.”
Nearly all of the parents surveyed (94 percent) underestimated how much fighting was happening on social media, but one important finding was that parental monitoring significantly benefited their children’s psychological well-being and actually “erased the negative effects of online conflicts.”7
There were some benefits reported, too, like connecting with friends, feeling affirmed and supported, and exercising positive leadership.
Compulsive Texting Linked to Lower Grades, Sleep Problems
A study of more than 400 teens revealed that teens who text compulsively are more likely to have trouble sleeping and lower academic performance.8
Compulsive texters aren’t only defined by the number of texts they send, they also have traits seen in compulsive gamblers, such as lying about the amount of time they spend texting, difficulty stopping the behavior, and losing sleep to text. Girls in the study were much more likely to text compulsively than boys.
Past studies have also linked excessive texting to lower grades. In one study, students who abstained from texting during a lecture wrote down 62 percent more information in their notes and recalled more detailed information from the lecture than those who were texting.
The non-texters also scored a full letter grade and a half higher on a multiple choice test.9 A separate study similarly revealed that students who texted or used Facebook while doing schoolwork had lower overall grade point averages (GPAs). The researchers concluded:10
“Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning.”
Nighttime Use of Social Media Linked to Sleep Problems
Overall social media use, and especially nighttime use, was associated with poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, and higher levels of anxiety and depression among 12 to 18-year-olds, according research presented at a British Psychological Society conference.11
On one hand, teens are staying up late to respond to messages and monitor what’s happening so they don’t miss out. Teens may also be woken up by text messages they receive. On the other hand, even the light emitted from a smartphone, computer, or tablet could be interfering with teens’ sleep.
Melatonin is a regulator of your sleep cycle, and when it is suppressed there is less stimulation to promote sleepiness at a healthy bedtime.
Computer screens and most light bulbs emit blue light, to which your eyes are particularly sensitive simply because it’s the type of light most common outdoors during daytime hours.
- Children who use electronic media at night go to bed later, get fewer hours of sleep per week, and report more daytime sleepiness
- Adolescents with a television in their bedroom go to bed later, have more difficulty falling asleep, and have a shorter total sleep time
- Sending texts or e-mails after initially going to bed increases daytime sleepiness among teens (even if it’s done only once a week)
Social Media Usage Is Often Done While Sitting
The other unmentioned risk here has to do with the fact that media usage is often a sedentary activity. Children spend more than 60 percent of their waking day sedentary,14 and by some estimates children sit an average of 8.5 hours a day.15 Further, activity levels are thought to decline steeply after age 8, especially among girls.16
Researchers decided to study a small group of girls (aged 7 to 10 years) to determine if sitting is as detrimental to their health as it appears to be to adults.
At the start of the study, all of the girls had healthy arterial function. However, after sitting for three hours, playing on tablets or watching movies, there was a “profound” reduction in vascular function.17 Arterial dilation fell by up to 33 percent in the girls, which is alarming since a 1 percent decline in vascular function is known to increase heart disease risk by 13 percent in adults.18
There were some encouraging findings. The girls’ artery function had returned to normal a few days later when they returned to the lab.
And when the sitting time was interrupted by a gentle 10-minute cycling session, no decline in vascular function was recorded. Still, no one knows what effect sitting for hours day after day has on kids’ health, so it’s best to encourage your kids to stay active.
Study author Dr. Ali McManus, an associate professor of Pediatric Exercise Physiology at the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, told The New York Times, “It seems clear from our results that children should not sit for prolonged, uninterrupted periods of time.”19
Not surprisingly, in 2013 researchers from the College of Education, Health, and Human Services at Kent State University in Ohio found higher cell phone use was linked with reduced physical activity and fitness.20 According to the authors, “their findings suggest that cell phone use may be able to gauge a person’s risk for a multitude of health issues related to an inactive lifestyle.”
Postural problems are also a possibility. In a UK study involving 10 year-olds, up to 10 percent may already have the precursors to bad backs, and 9 percent of the kids showed degenerative disc problems with at least one disc. The researcher attributed this to lugging heavy school books, watching TV, and playing video games, but texting may also play a significant role.21
How Parents Can Encourage Healthy Media Usage
Banning your child from electronic media is probably not an option, so how can you find a happy medium that allows your child to connect with friends without damaging effects to his or her self-esteem, sleep schedule, or grades? For starters, become familiar with the social media platforms your child is using. When you find yourself checking to see if your Facebook post was “liked” by your friends, you’ll begin to understand how all-consuming it can become for a teen.
You should also follow your children on each social network they have joined, and talk about any posts or images that concern you. Keep tabs on your child’s social media activity each day, and if your teen appears sad after receiving a text, ask him or her about it.
Parents may also want to establish an “electronic curfew” for their children and teens to prevent social media usage from interfering with quality sleep or interrupting important activities like family meals and homework. Also, encourage teens to put down their phones and engage in other activities often, and to keep social media in perspective. Robert Faris, a sociologist with the University of California, Davis who worked on the CNN study, explained:
“Encourage them to try not to keep score … Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t worry if you’re not tagged. Don’t count likes. Don’t exclude other people. There are a lot of things that could make social media a little healthier for kids.”
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