Back to Your Health Blog

For better or worse, today’s preoccupation with new media and technology has changed the way we live and communicate

Chances are your smartphone plays a prominent role in your daily life. You might use it to keep in touch with friends and family, manage your schedule, find your way around, snap photos, track your footsteps, watch videos and more. “One of the big stories about the rise of technology in people’s lives is that it has become embedded in the rhythms of people’s lives,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, which has explored the social impact of digital technology for the past 15 years. “People now are finding it increasingly hard not to have their phone with them.” 
Pros and Cons
Data from the Internet & American Life Project suggests new media and technology present a “double-edged proposition,” says Rainie. “You can be interrupted at any moment, you can be on call at any moment, you can be asked to go to someplace else rather than the place that you are, and so there are plenty of ways that screen life is distracted life,” she says. “At the same time, what we constantly hear from people is that they feel that there are any number of advantages to living this life.” 

From a health perspective, you can count instant access to health information — and to other parents and patients with similar interests — among those advantages, says Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “Families are at the helm of their healthcare in a way they’ve never been before,” she says.

But don’t overlook the digital disadvantages, including the well-documented dangers of driving — or even walking — while texting. Taking devices to bed — as more than 4 in 5 teens report doing — and texting after lights are out result in more tired teens. In a recent study, even younger children (fourth- and seventh-graders) who slept in rooms with small-screen devices reported getting less sleep. And it’s not just incoming messages keeping us awake; the blue glow of our devices’ LED screens near bedtime can disrupt our bodies’ natural sleep cycles. 

And what about the influence of social media? To Rainie’s surprise, a recent Pew report found no direct relationship between social media and stress. In fact, some people, especially women, experienced lower levels of stress when using a certain combination of social media and digital technology. However, researchers found social media can be an indirect cause of stress for users (again particularly for women) who learn about distressing events in others’ lives, a concept called “the cost of caring.” As for the claim that social media makes us socially isolated, Rainie says the opposite appears to be true: Social media users tend to be more social than nonusers. 

Rx: Disconnect
“In some ways,” explains Dr. Swanson, ”we’re just using new tools to build relationships, partnerships, friendships and understanding.” Even so, she adds, an important part of adapting to life with gadgets is recognizing when it’s best to put them away.

Dr. Swanson suggests making devices off-limits during mealtimes and bedtime; keeping them out of bedrooms; leaving them behind for short bursts of time, such as when you go for a walk; and designating digital breaks during vacations.

The AAP recommends creating a family media-use plan addressing quantity, quality and location of media use. The plan should limit entertainment screen time to less than two hours a day and discourage screen time for children under 2 years old. 

For kids older than 2 years old, think about how you can use media to inspire rather than babysit, advises Dr. Swanson, an executive committee member of the AAP Council on Communications & Media, which wrote its policy statement on Children, Adolescents and the Media. “I would never want you to hand a device to a child and walk away,” she cautions. “How are you interacting with them with technology as opposed to how are you using technology as a distracter or a quieter or a muffler? We don’t have any data that says passive media is any good for very young children.”

Finally, be sure to encourage good old-fashioned creativity — at any age. “That’s what we don’t get when we’re always attached to our devices,” says Dr. Swanson. ”Carving out time for creativity and blank walls for our brains to just daydream and reflect is such an important part of making our own ideas.”