The neurological dangers implicated in overusing our devices are well-established. From the incessant cognitive itching to allay novelty bias to a consistent uptick in distracted driving accidents and deaths to the circadian chaos of excessive blue light, our memory and attention are not the only skills being affected. While no long-term studies have traced these issues from childhood through adulthood—yet—one simple fact is inarguable: too much screen time is not healthy.
Now a longitudinal study of over a eleven hundred high school students in Australia has revealed another disturbing aspect of technology addiction: a decline in mental health.
Poor sleep due to late-night calling and texting is the culprit. The group of thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds saw a stark decrease in performance over a four-year period, from 2010-2013. While previous research has linked the blue light emitted from phones to poor sleep, and sleep is necessary for optimal health and emotional regulation, this study is considered the first to link all three, even though anecdotally teachers have noticed increasing sluggishness in their students for years.
Not only was educational performance hindered. Important social skills were also diminished, says Lynette Vernon, lead researcher of this study at Murdoch University in Perth:
The outcomes of not coping – lower self-esteem, feeling moody, externalising behaviours and less self-regulation, aggressive and delinquent behaviours – the levels increase as sleep problems increased.
It’s not only the light affecting students, Vernon observes. Cognitive arousal when receiving a text or social media like also keeps the receiver primed for further reaction at a time when their body and mind should be winding down. Instead of drifting to sleep their brain remains on alert for the next ding.
As a preventive measure Vernon suggests a “physical boundary” so that teens cannot access their phone at night. Yet Vernon is on shaky ground here. Technology is one of the least discussed yet most pervasive addictions of our era. Many parents are addicted as well. Admission is the first hurdle to clear, something many are unwilling to do.
If the child has become accustomed to constant stimulation the emotional withdrawal will not be pretty. This sets up a power struggle between child and adult during a time when such struggles persist anyway. The adult has to be an adult in this case. Vernon thinks change is possible with integrity and communication:
Back when they’re aged seven to 10, you have to role model – you put your phone in a basket at night, it doesn’t go into your bedroom, it becomes normalised in the household and you have a much easier job.
Until we recognize how damaging technology addiction is we won’t make much headway. It is an insidious drug given how much our phones have become security blankets, always attached and within reach. Hopefully as more research like this emerges adults will live up to their title. If not the cycle will only grow worse as their children grow up having normalized a life lived entirely on a screen. Where our mental health goes then is anybody’s guess.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.