Look around. It’s obvious we love our screens. In fact, most of us aren’t looking around much. We’re busy communicating and looking at our screen for hours a day. But, are we considering the possible health risks of all that screentime? Are we even aware that some of us are beginning to show signs of digital dementia? Or, are concerns about screentime, our eyes, and digital dementia all hype from those who don’t love and appreciate technology?
Professionals and parents aren’t the only ones concerned when it comes to digital devices. According to a recent Pew research report, 54% of teens say they spend too much time on their smartphone. This report also shows digital distraction isn’t just a problem for teens. It’s a problem for parents as well. If parents are models for behavior, what are we teaching our kids? And, are we considering the long-term outcome of all this screentime on our eyes? Are we discussing signs and symptoms of digital dementia?
What You Need to Know About Screentime, Our Eyes, And Digital Dementia
Screentime and Digital Dementia
First, let’s dig into the term digital dementia. Who coined this term?
The term digital dementia originated in South Korea a few years ago. Like many countries around the world, South Korea has a large digital-using population. Doctors there noticed young patients experiencing cognitive and memory problems after heavy use of digital devices. They began using the term “digital dementia” because the symptoms displayed by patients seemed to be more in line with people who had sustained previous brain injuries.
But is digital dementia real? And if so, what do you need to know about it?
We know too much time on digital devices can affect our child’s sleep, put them at risk for obesity, and cause aggressive behavior. However, is there real evidence for “digital dementia?” Or is this a new term made up to strike fear in the hearts of parents when it comes to their kids and screentime?
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study is currently running a long-term study which should give us answers. Their initial research on 4,500 nine and 10-year-olds has already given us valuable insight and shown that the brains of children who use smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day are more likely to experience premature thinning of the cortex (the outermost layer of the brain that processes thought and action).
What we don’t know yet is if the thinning of the cortex is being caused by the screentime. We also don’t know if this thinning is a bad thing. It requires more research. Not much comfort to parents and those working with kids who want answers now. But data takes time. The National Institute of Health has just finished enrolling the 11,000 kids for its brain study. Results should be available to researchers this year.
In the meantime, researchers from CHEO Research Institute’s Healthy Active Living and Obesity used this data and looked at how kids spend their entire day. They found kids who spend less than two hours a day on screens, participate in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity, and receive nine to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep have higher cognitive abilities.
We are getting closer and closer to saying digital dementia is a real struggle for those who spend too much time in front of a screen. Using the data we have now on kids and digital dementia, it’s best to take reasonable steps to ensure kids have a healthy balance of screentime and physical activity.
Help Kids Avoid Digital Dementia with These 10 Tips
- Encourage kids to get outside for physical activity often. Natural sunlight is much better for our bodies than the blue light emitted from digital devices. And, kids need at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day.
- Create device down times and zones for your family. Digital devices need to be charged. So, set up a charging station in your home. Then allot specific times of day, like mealtimes, that are device-free. Consider setting up device-free areas of your home as well.
- Start a screen-free family activity. It can be an ongoing puzzle set up in the family room, a game table, an outdoor area with yard games, or a set read-aloud time in the evening.
- Keep memory sharp. Technology lets us keep track of everything from passwords to phone numbers. Be sure to give kids some memory practice by having them memorize things like their phone number, address, and simple directions.
- Keep problem-solving and thinking skills sharp. Computers can do some thinking for us. That’s both a pro and a con. Help kids stay sharp by having them play puzzles and games that promote real-time problem-solving. Scrabble, chess, and checkers are great options.
- Limit background media. Let your kids focus on the task at hand by limiting how much media they use at any given time. Don’t allow kids to multitask while they are doing homework. This is too much information for the brain and is tiring.
- Watch, engage, and participate in the media your kids enjoy. This gives you the opportunity to discuss the games, apps, videos, and movies your child loves with them. And gives you the chance to help them ask questions and dive deeper into the content they view.
- Encourage your child to develop device-free hobbies.
- Give kids unstructured playtime where they can foster their creativity and develop their problem-solving skills. Kids under the age of 3 definitely need plenty of screen free activities.
Screentime and Our Eyes
As children younger and younger begin spending time on digital devices, many parents are asking about the potential effects of screentime on young developing eyes. Since 1971, the American Academy of Ophthalmology has been reporting a worldwide epidemic of myopia. They report:
“Since 1971, the incidence of nearsightedness in the US nearly doubled, to 42 percent. In Asia, up to 90 percent of teenagers and adults are nearsighted.”
The numbers clearly show a problem. But researchers haven’t found a definitive cause yet. However, a 2019 study shows there is evidence that increase in nearsightedness has to do with near work activities. These activities can include reading, using the computer, and “cram school.”
What’s important to note is this research shows using the computer as one possible cause. Another is reading. We don’t tell our kids not to read. But we are quick to say screentime is hurting our kids. Could it be that current data doesn’t tell us if the rise in nearsightedness is due to people focusing on our digital devices? Or, if the light emitted from screens interacts with our circadian rhythms to influence eye growth?
It could also be a combination of both focusing and the light that makes digital devices hard on the eyes. Or, it could be these devices aren’t more harmful than focusing on needlepoint. We just don’t have enough data yet. So, what should we do as parents? Do we say no to screentime altogether? Do we purchase blue light filtering glasses for family members who spend more than 4 hours a day in front of a computer screen?
7 Tips to Help Protect Your Eyes During Screentime
- Set 20-minute screen breaks every hour. Time Timer is a great option for smartphones.
- Take a 20-second peek at nature after each level you complete in a video game.
- Use the bookmark function and “bookmark” e-books every two chapters. These are 15 minute “go outside and stretch” breaks.
- Computer screens are bright. And the glare from them can cause strain on our eyes. Adjust the brightness of your screen to create a comfortable brightness on your eyes for reading. And, avoid using digital devices outside in bright sunlight and rooms with bright lights.
- Teach kids to hold smartphones and other digital devices approximately 18 to 24 inches from their face.
- Create distractions that cause your child to look up every now and then.
- Remind your kids to blink during screentime.
As this generation of kids grows, we’ll learn more about screentime, our eyes, and digital dementia. There’s no reason to fear letting our kids have screentime. There is no reason to fear our kids taking advantage of all the wonderful educational benefits technology offers them.
However, there are reasonable steps we need to be taking as parents so our kids learn how to use digital devices properly. And, we should be teaching our kids how to use their digital devices in ways that are healthy.