The Screen Time Problem: Why We All Need a Digital Detox

We love our phones, and they’re only becoming more essential in our daily lives as they get bigger, smarter and more capable. But, as we are becoming ever more reliant on our mobile devices, we’re also learning a lot about the dangers of excessive screen time.

The amount of time we spend staring at screens each day has been an issue for years, but our mobile screens are even more invasive and harder to ignore today. Our smart devices are so ingrained into our routines that we sometimes feel as though we can’t live without them. With our devices becoming smarter and more capable with every new release, we have to proactively try harder to step away from our screens.

Screen addiction is a growing concern in the tech community, and we want to talk about it. A serious discussion about screen time might seem odd coming from a tech company like Palm, but we’re always trying to read and understand the latest research on screen addiction and digital distraction so we can better understand how to engage in more fulfilling and efficient digital interactions.

Screen Time and Kids

Much of the discussion around digital consumption understandably deals with how it affects the brain development of children and toddlers. Headlines like “Kids’ screen time tied to poor health” are alarming, not just for their findings, but for how frequently they pop up these days—in a time where parents and children turn to their screens to solve just about any problem.

An educational game or cartoon can keep a child entertained for hours. They’re a quick fix for just about any toddler tantrum. But, the science is telling us that—while there are some great educational games and apps for children—too much screen time can delay cognitive development. Dr. Aric Sigman of the British Psychological Society explains that even the most well intentioned apps can “unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains… the ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.” Basically, not all screen time is bad, but too much of it can slow down mental and social development.

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Young children are at the most risk of suffering from too much digital media because of the developmental state of their brains. One of the most recent and worrying studies published in 2019 by Canadian researchers monitored the screen usage habits of 2,000 children from their birth to age 5. By comparing children who spent a lot of times on screens to those who didn’t, researchers found that “excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally.”

Obviously, the skills needed to thrive in the real world cannot be wholly learned through an app. While an educational reading app, for example, might help your child with their ABCs, they’ll never get over the line without your involvement. Perhaps even more significantly, no app or amount of screen time is going to teach them to be, say, empathetic or sociable. Such valuable social skills are learned by communicating with others in the real world and through parental nurturing.

Starting these dangerous digital habits at such a young age can lead to alarming effects as a child gets older. One concerning study found that teens who spend over 5 hours in front of screens each day often experience “thoughts of suicide or prolonged periods of hopelessness and sadness.” When we rely too heavily on screens to keep our children busy, entertained, or just quiet, we’re stripping them of engaging in real world interactions and setting them up to be even more dependent on digital media as they grow older.

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Digital Dopamine

But, why are kids so enthralled by their screens, and why are even the educational games deemed to be harmful when time is not moderated? The answer is dopamine. “When every finger swipe brings about a response of colors and shapes and sounds,” says Dr. Sigman “a child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine, the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure.” So, “when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection.” And this why the powerful devices we hold in our hands throughout the day, which were designed in the first place to keep us connected, often end up replacing the real world connections that are important to development, particularly for juveniles.

If you’ve come this far, you know that screens aren’t just a problem for children. It would be foolish for us to think that all of the harmful effects of screen time and digital consumption only apply to children. Brian Scudamore points out in a recent Forbes article that, “we get an instant high every time our screen lights up with a new notification... Dopamine reinforces (and motivates) behavior that makes us feel good and, in turn, can create addiction.”

The screen has a very real physiological effect on our bodies, no matter how young or old we are. So, where the dopamine effect might make a child obsessed with a fun game or video, we often end up seeking even more gratification through social media. Honestly, most of us don’t need our doctors or scientists to tell us why we love our screens—we just know that we love them. But, we can also see how our smart devices often put up a barrier between us and the people around us. Social media apps can ironically make us feel even more disconnected from the real world.

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More Productive or More Distracted?

For most adults, it’s easy to justify all the time we spend on our mobile devices. We use productivity apps and calendars to save time and increase productivity in our professional and personal endeavors. Since we need our phones for work, we don’t think of that screen time as a bad thing, and the line between good screen time and bad screen time is blurred. But, time spent staring at a screen is still time spent staring at a screen.

We often fool ourselves into thinking that we’re being productive, but the time we’re saving by sending a work email on the run is easily lost when we switch over to Instagram and look at memes for 30 minutes. It’s scary to hear digital addiction discussed with the same terms we use to talk about drug and alcohol addiction, but taking digital addiction seriously just might be the best way to actually start tackling the issue.

What to Do About It?

So what can we realistically do about all of this over-consumption? The first step is recognizing that there is a problem, and that it can only be fixed if we proactively do something about it. Second, we need to stop relying on our devices to entertain and educate our children. It’s often the parent—not the child—who turns to the screen first because it the easiest and most effective solution. Third, we need to lead by examples because it’s going to be much harder to tell our toddlers and teens to stop looking at screens when they see us glued to them morning to night.

Researchers suggest establishing “family media plans, as well as managing screen time, to offset the potential consequences of excess use.” We love the idea of a family media plan, especially when we replace screen time with other activities, whether it’s reading a book, or going for a walk (instead of, for example, playing games on a tablet).

Whatever you do, we suggest starting off small and taking it one step at a time. You certainly don’t need to cut screens out of your life completely. If you simply spend 30 less minutes each day on your phone, you’re essentially reclaiming nearly 15 hours over the course of a month. That’s almost an extra day! An extra day to spend meeting up with friends, catching up on sleep, reading a book, learning a new skill, getting in shape, or simply spending time with your family.

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Join the Conversation

No matter how many blogs or scientific studies we read, it’s going to be hard to realistically detox from our digital devices if we aren’t proactive about it. There is no instant cure or master plan that will work for everybody. But, we need to consciously try harder to practice healthier digital habits—especially as our mobile devices continue to become smarter and more ingrained into our routines.

We can’t rely on one piece of technology to cure all of our digital consumption issues, but we can use smarter mobile devices, like Palm, that make it easier to spend less time staring at the screen and more time living our lives. While Palm was never meant to be a cure-all for digital addiction, it can really help to reduce your digital consumption if you use it’s smarter features, like Life Mode.

This is only the beginning of a conversation that we want to continue. We love learning and sharing different techniques to help battle digital addiction and excessive screen time. We want to hear all the things you’re doing to maintain healthier relationships with your digital devices. Tell us your story here.