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Is Secondhand Screen Time the New Secondhand Smoking?

Summary:
Yves here. It no doubt seems easy to dismiss concerns about high levels of smart device and computer use among the young as overwrought. Yet some elite private schools in California disallow screen uses in classes and for projects, among other reasons to push students to develop hand-eye coordination and three-D skills. A story this week in the Wall Street Journal described how schools that require students to give up their phones so they can focus on tasks at hand have found that they need to keep the devices in the students’ sight to prevent anxiety: Smartphones have long been a scourge for teachers and administrators, who have employed a range of strict measures to keep them out of the classroom. But it turns out that getting rid of phones introduced another distraction: withdrawal

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Yves here. It no doubt seems easy to dismiss concerns about high levels of smart device and computer use among the young as overwrought. Yet some elite private schools in California disallow screen uses in classes and for projects, among other reasons to push students to develop hand-eye coordination and three-D skills. A story this week in the Wall Street Journal described how schools that require students to give up their phones so they can focus on tasks at hand have found that they need to keep the devices in the students’ sight to prevent anxiety:

Smartphones have long been a scourge for teachers and administrators, who have employed a range of strict measures to keep them out of the classroom. But it turns out that getting rid of phones introduced another distraction: withdrawal pangs.

Now, teachers across the country are testing their own methods for managing their students’ phone-related angst. Some use lockable pouches that let students hold their phones rather than having to leave them alone in their lockers. Others have set up charging stations in classrooms, betting that the visibility and value of a charge will keep students at ease. Then there are the teachers who have decided dangling extra credit and other prizes is the best defense against phone withdrawal….

South Bronx Early College Academy Charter School in New York decided two years ago that making students leave their phones in their lockers wasn’t working: Scofflaws sneaked out of class to use them. So the school bought a bunch of locking, foamlike pouches from a company called Yondr that also markets its devices to theaters that want to prevent audience members from filming performances. The students can keep their phones with them but can’t access them without a special magnetic unlocking mechanism…

During the first few weeks, students were “fiending” while waiting in line at the end of the day for the teacher to unlock their pouches, Mr. Blough says.

Eighth-grader Olamide Oladitan and some of his fellow students tried to pry and cut open their pouches with objects like pens and scissors. “It didn’t work,” Mr. Oladitan says.

On the one hand, regularly checking one’s screen and engaging with a smartphone clearly makes it hard to pay attention to what is in front of you, let alone absorb information. But the compromise some schools have adopted for screen denial, of having it still in eyeshot, is less than ideal. From a 2017 article:

Your cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach — even if it’s off. That’s the takeaway finding from a new study from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

McCombs Assistant Professor Adrian Ward and co-authors conducted experiments with nearly 800 smartphone users in an attempt to measure, for the first time, how well people can complete tasks when they have their smartphones nearby even when they’re not using them.

In one experiment, the researchers asked study participants to sit at a computer and take a series of tests that required full concentration in order to score well. The tests were geared to measure participants’ available cognitive capacity — that is, the brain’s ability to hold and process data at any given time. Before beginning, participants were randomly instructed to place their smartphones either on the desk face down, in their pocket or personal bag, or in another room. All participants were instructed to turn their phones to silent.

The researchers found that participants with their phones in another room significantly outperformed those with their phones on the desk, and they also slightly outperformed those participants who had kept their phones in a pocket or bag.

The findings suggest that the mere presence of one’s smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity and impairs cognitive functioning, even though people feel they’re giving their full attention and focus to the task at hand.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” Ward said. “Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process — the process of requiring yourself to not think about something — uses up some of your limited cognitive resources. It’s a brain drain.”

Other experts have warned that the frequency of smart screen use among the young, who’ve grown up interacting with them intensely, has reduced social skills.

What will happen if the combination of PG&E-type power shutoffs and other weather-related events (remember the prolonged Hurricane Sandy blackout for lower Manhattan) become the new normal? How will people redefine their relationship with their screens if they become much less reliable tools?

By Joelle Renstrom, Lecturer of Rhetoric, Boston University. Originally published at The Conversation

The Environmental Protection Agency first warned of secondhand smoke in 1991, some 30 years after scientists determined that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. Today, a growing body of research points toward a new indirect health hazard.

Just as frequently being around other people while they smoke can cause cancer, heart disease, lung disease and other ailments, what I call “secondhand screen time” could be endangering children.

By not limiting their own phone use, parents and other caregivers may be unwittingly setting kids up to be addicted to screens.

An Addiction

A decade ago, the unwillingness – or perhaps the inability – of the college students in my writing classes to stay off their phones for 50 minutes at a stretch catalyzed my interest in screen use. And my students have only grown more unwilling to put down their phones, a trend that has also gotten worse outside of my classroom.

Curious about my students’ phone use, I began researching screen addiction and conducting my own surveys. Roughly 20% of my students have used the word “addiction” when describing their phone habits, and many more have expressed misgivings about their phone use.

While I encourage them to examine their habits, I blame students less for their tech addiction than I did a decade ago. They’ve learned this behavior from adults – in many cases since the moment they were born.

Checking Twitter in front of kids is not the same as blowing smoke in their faces. Smartphones and cigarettes do, however, have some things in common. Both are addictive and both became wildly popular before researchers learned about their addictive properties and health dangers.

On average, American adults touch their phones over 2,500 times a day. According to the American Psychiatric Association, that fits the definition of addiction: “a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.” While researchers continue to study the effects and extent of phone use, the scientific consensus is that phone addiction is real.

Desiring Objects

What’s a parent to do while nursing or when an infant falls asleep on one’s chest?

Perhaps they’ll read the news, check email, text friends or scan social media parenting groups. A phone or tablet can be a portal to the rest of the world – after all, caring for small children can be isolating.

But kids, even babies, notice these habits. They see parents reach again and again for a seemingly magical object that glints and flashes, makes sounds and shows moving images.

Who wouldn’t want such a wonderful plaything? Trouble is, if the desire for a phone builds in infancy, it can become second nature.

Troubling Research

Some researchers have already found links between excessive screen time, particularly phone use, and attention deficits, behavioral issues, sleep problems, impaired social skills, loneliness, anxiety and depression.

Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Israel’s Educational Neuroimaging Center recently published a study in JAMA Pediatrics that focused on cognitive-behavioral risks of exposing preschool-aged kids to screen-based media. That includes video games, TV, websites and apps. Phones are particularly problematic, the study found, because they provide mobile access to all of this media. They found that screen exposure impedes the formation of nerve systems involved in language development, expression and reading skills.

These findings point to yet another consequence of excessive screen time, especially for younger kids. Since 96% of Americans have phones, many babies are exposed to screens soon after they’re born and the stakes of such exposure are becoming better understood.

To be sure, it’s hard if not impossible to assess how much time Americans are spending looking at screens given the countless different ways that people use their devices. And because not all screen time is equally good or bad for you, some experts are calling for a “Human Screenome Project” to assess what we’re doing on our screens and to figure out what the consequences might be.

Developing Brains

When younger kids are exposed to harmful, habit-forming behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes or gambling, they’re more likely to become addicted to those same substances or behaviors. Exposure to secondhand smoke itself also can make kids prone to cigarette addiction.

While scientists don’t yet know for sure if that happens to kids who observe their parents’ phone use, there’s ample evidence that kids learn from and mimic their parents’ behaviors. If children see their parents do something they’re not allowed to do, that behavior doesn’t seem bad or wrong, and they may desire the “forbidden fruit” all the more.

My mom, a lifelong smoker, had her first cigarette when she was 12. After dinner one night, her parents, both of whom smoked multiple packs of unfiltered cigarettes each day, lit up and her dad handed her the pack. This was in the 1950s, before people knew the effects of smoking.

When she took a drag, instead of coughing, she felt like she’d “died and gone to heaven.” My mom’s parents smoked so often in front of her that she both wanted to do it and knew exactly how.

When I see toddlers navigate smartphones as though they were born using them, this story springs to mind.

I’ve seen parents hand over iPhones to 2-year-olds to placate them in restaurants, just as mine sometimes plopped me down in front of the TV to keep me occupied. The difference is that I couldn’t bring the TV to the dinner table, or anywhere else.

John Hutton, a pediatrician who researches the effects of phone use, has found that roughly 90% of U.S. babies are exposed to screen time before their first birthday, and that it’s not uncommon for 2- or 3-month-olds to watch phones.

Breaking Old Habits

The human brain continues developing until we’re roughly 25 years old, so teenage behavior can have a significant and lasting impact. Research indicates that the adolescent brain is particularly prone to risk-taking, peer-seeking and lack of impulse control.

Between that and a lifetime of fetishizing screens, is it any wonder that so many teenagers won’t put their phones down?

My college students describe the disconcerting and disappointing quiet that sets in when they’re at a table in the dining hall or in someone’s dorm room and everyone’s deep into a phone. Phones facilitate an incalculable amount of important interactions for them, especially with friends and family back home.

But by the time they’re in college, they can recognize and articulate at least some of what they’re missing when they spend so much time staring at screens. They can assess their own habits and implement some changes if they so choose, but it makes sense that they, having been raised with this techno-magic, would never think of giving it up.

A 2-month-old or a 2-year-old, however, can’t do that. Since the frontal cortex of an adolescent brain is still developing, teenagers aren’t fully able to reason or control impulses.

Perhaps, most adults can’t either. But since it’s up to today’s adults to shape younger generations, we should be aware of the secondhand effects of our own behavior.

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