The late Steve Jobs put iPads into the hands of millions of people, but when it came to his own children he limited their use of these revolutionary devices. Why? He feared the iPad’s addictive qualities. And Silicon Valley executives and engineers seek no-tech schools to enroll their kids.
“We don’t allow the iPad in the home. We think it’s too dangerous for them in effect,” he said in a 2012 interview.
Call it digital heroin or electronic crack. Call it whatever you wish, but Americans are addicted to the electronic screen and health officials are ringing the alarm.
Dr. Alina Alonso, the head of the Health Department for Palm Beach County, said she is particularly concerned about children and teens hooked up to any number of devices: smartphones, tablets, gaming systems, televisions. It is contributing to an obesity rate in which a whopping two-thirds of the U.S population is considered overweight, but this growing addiction has more far-reaching consequences than ever believed.
Alonso suggests — except for work or school — that time in front of any LCD screen be limited to two hours a day. Studies show 8- to 10-year-olds spend eight hours a day with some form of electronic device. Teenagers averaged 11 hours. Even children under 1 are using tablets or smartphones about an hour a day.
“Get those kids away from the computers,” Alonso said. “Get them outside playing baseball or other sports. So instead of sticking the kids in front of the TV or having them in their room playing their Xbox, get them out and to go the park, look around. Walk along the beach. It’s absolutely gorgeous and it’s free.”
It’s all part of the Health Department’s Healthiest Weight Florida Program, a 5-2-1-0 daily prescription to incorporate five fruits and/or vegetables a day, one hour of exercise and zero sugary drinks.
Psychologists, child behaviorists, and technological experts warn these devices are very much like a drug, playing on the same pleasure-seeking receptors in the brain as those street drugs. As a result, the smartphone can be a tough thing to put down.
Bright shiny object
There are even gurus now giving tips on how to kick your smartphone obsession, like turning the screen to black-and-white so it’s not that bright shiny object. On Reddit, the Internet discussion website, there is a topic dedicated to screen addiction, where one user posted “Help, I can’t stop,” complaining about mind-numbing boredom without the screen.
Another Reddit user counsels: “That feeling of ‘having nothing to do’ is a large part of the healing process. You are taking away a large, unhealthy part of your life, and it is going to take time and patience to truly heal.”
But the ubiquitous LCD screen is so interwoven into our lives, it invades even our healthiest activities. Many people now read books not on paper but on some type of device, like a Kindle. At the gym, televisions are mounted on exercise bikes, elliptical machines and treadmills.
The masses who must use a computer screen at work or school could find themselves in front of some screen for all but a few of their waking minutes.
Any afternoon visit to CityPlace in West Palm Beach, for instance, will find shoppers and shopkeepers alike with eyes glued to their smartphones.
Yet, this obsession also costs lives.
Car crashes from drivers texting on their cellphones claimed 3,477 lives and additional 391,000 injuries in 2015 when statistics were last compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
And smartphones can be used as weapons as suicides driven by cyberbullying are well-documented with criminal charges brought against individuals in several states.
“We are getting an increase in narcissistic behavior and part of narcissistic behavior is to make other people feel inadequate. You are seeing that on social networks,” said William H. Davidow, a Silicon Valley executive and former venture capitalist who has written about the screen phenomena in his book Overconnected.
The human brain through millions of years evolution is designed to live in the physical, not the virtual space. “Today we are trying to do things with our mind that they weren’t designed for,” he said. “We are suddenly transporting them to these virtual environments, and they haven’t evolved enough to work effectively.”
Social networks, video games, browsers all have been commercialized to keep the viewer’s attention. They are designed to work on the human brain similar to a casino’s slot machine, releasing dopamine – the neurotransmitter in the brain that makes us feel pleasure, as a reward system, Davidow said.
This explains the Pavlovian response to the notification of an e-mail, tweet or other interaction on a smartphone. Or a feeling as if one has lost a limb when said cellphone is lost or misplaced. Or as parents can attest, the writhing emotional pain of a child when punished by losing screen time.
Dr. Nicholas Kardas is executive director of The Dunes East Hampton and author of Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids — and How to Break the Trance. He called this screen addiction the “epidemic of our generation.”
“Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex — which controls executive functioning, including impulse control — in exactly the same way that cocaine does,” he wrote in a New York Post article. “Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels — the feel-good neurotransmitter most involved in the addiction dynamic — as much as sex.”
In his practice, Kardas has counseled parents who have watched their kids go from happy-go-lucky youngsters to addicts of the first order, describing one 6-year-old who became nearly catatonic playing the game Minecraft and would fall into hysterics if his device was taken away.
Some parents aren’t sitting on the sidelines in the battle against the screen.
Mireille Aleman, a Palm Beach Atlantic University chemistry professor, keeps her two boys — 11 and 13 — on a tight leash when it comes to any type of electronic screen: limiting them to one hour during weekdays and two hours on the weekend.
“I hate my kids being on electronics all the time,” she said. “I want them to be creative and be outside. I say, ‘Get off the screen.’ They don’t like it because the rest of their peers have complete access all the time.”
Not all mental health experts agree that our electronic devices are evil, saying today’s screen haters are the same archetype of those who said television would be the downfall of society. They call it media fear-mongering and point out that the American Psychiatric Association has not formally recognized technology addictions.
However, China’s Ministry of Health has declared staying online for more than six hours a day instead of working and study is a symptom of Internet Addiction Disorder.
There is another concern: That these devices have unleashed the monsters within us — especially when it comes to emotionally developing teenagers.
A lethal weapon
The true sociopath can have a field day online.The advent of social media brought out individuals looking to deliberately to be offensive — trolling — others to upset or anger them.
But for advanced cyberbullies, there is subtweeting — or vaguing — when the online barrage is made but doesn’t name the person outright. The target, though, is obvious to the social group.
Sometimes the commentary is done behind the person’s back, but often it is not. Posts of photos to rub in the exclusion are not unusual.
Or the vindictive person or group may suddenly ignore the target despite his or her efforts to reach out through numerous platforms, making the person feel as if they have been erased — made into a ghost.
One Penn State student who went by @JessyJeanie found and printed out all the subtweets her roommate had posted online, such as “Two weeks down and I already hate my roommate” and “My roommate situation is a horror story. And if you don’t believe me ask Britt.” The discovery went viral.
McAfee, part of Intel Security, in a 2014 study, found cyberbullying had tripled in just a few years time with 87 percent of youngsters saying they’ve witnessed it.
Garret O’Donnell, a senior at Dryfoos School of the Arts, said cyberbullying is hard to fight. A teen can block all their friends and go off the grid, but they burn the very bridges they value so much at that age.
“There are so many different formats that bullying on social media becomes kind of inescapable,” he said. “It is hard to avoid because you can see the thing people are talking about.”
Camden Cook, meeting with a group of millennials at CityPlace, said this online meanness is why he favors the effort to curb screen time.
“Limiting screen time is important because not everybody is social nowadays. The phones are much less social,” Cook said. “They are essentially not as nice as they were when phones did not exist.”
But other members of his generation say all this concern about screen time is all a little too much “do as I say, not as I do,” preaching by the older generations.
Thomas Kasinger, a second-year pharmacy student at PBAU, gets an “are you kidding me?” look on his face when told of the two-hour screen limit recommendation.
“I know they want what is best for people, but I know what’s better for me than some stranger,” said Kasinger, who estimates he spends six hours a day in front of some form of electronic screen.
O’Donnell said it’s a mistake to blame social media or the screen.
“People have to have a code of responsibility they use,” he said. “Attacking social media tools that are used to target people is a bad thing.”
How to curb your family’s screen time
Talk to your family: Explain to your kids that it’s important to sit less and move more in order to stay at a healthy weight and about the benefits they will reap by biking, running and playing.
Set a good example: Rise above, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Limit your screen time to no more than two hours per day, as well. Don’t text while driving. Read a book — or a newspaper.
Log screen time vs. active time: Track how much time the family spends in front of a screen, including the TV, video games and using the computer other than school or work. Then track how much physical activity the family gets. Ironically, there are computer apps to help you do this.
Set screen time limits: Now, the hard part: enforce a rule limiting screen time to two hours a day. Don’t use taking away screen time as an award/punishment, expert suggest.
Screen-free bedrooms: No TVs, computers or video game consoles in the bedrooms.
Meal time: Turn off the TV during meals and make everyone put their other electronic devices away. Eventually, that awkward silence will be filled with family chit chat.