Heart Health

Tune Out the Technology, Tune in to Life

September 15, 2010
CHI Health

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Tune Out the Technology, Tune in to Life

We’re all familiar with the concept of a couch potato … and it’s clear how someone who spends his life in front of the television, surfing the web or even playing video games might not be the healthiest person you’ll ever meet. Couch potatoes stereotypically enjoy a less-than-healthy diet and all of the time spent lounging doesn’t leave a ton of free time for physical activity (and no, walking to the kitchen for a snack or to the door to meet the pizza guy does not qualify as physical activity – even if it requires taking the stairs).

I’d imagine that none of this is really groundbreaking to anyone, though, right? But what you may not realize is that this type of lifestyle can have a dramatic effect on more than just physical health – it can also lead to some serious problems with your mental health, especially for children.

Jennifer Peter, PsyD, LMHP, a licensed clinical psychologist with CHI Health Psychiatric Associates, warns that the degree of technology use we are experiencing today is a relatively new phenomenon that has increased quicker than we’ve been able to adapt to it (both mentally and physically). Though families try to deal the best they can, it can become overwhelming and they can become overloaded by the pressure of keeping up – including both the financial and social pull to keep up with the newest gadgets and models. And while technology does provide an opportunity for increased communication, it can also pull everyone off into different directions, leaving no really need to interact at all.

There are several key areas in our lives in which an abundance of technology can be more of a detriment than a benefit. Jennifer details her concerns on each of the following topics:


Relationships

“I recently saw a statement alluding to the idea that technology is the paradoxical phenomenon that makes a social tool create isolation. Social networking sites provide us the opportunity to reach across distances and communicate with friends and family that we would normally have no access to, but my fear is that one’s ability to communicate verbally in a face-to-face way is going to disintegrate.

Texting even takes the verbal communication by phone and makes it impersonal. Messages through e-mail, text or other forms can be misinterpreted. The emotional context is absent which can lead to unintended consequences.

I’ve also observed that people are a lot more likely to let go of traits such as tact, empathy and compassion and say things in a more aggressive, mean way than they would ever consider doing in person.”


Development

“Children get their sense of self-efficacy, values, morals and their general place in the world largely through their parents and their families. If communication and interaction decreases then these things could become vague or less defined. There are also studies that look at the attention spans of children who spend excessive amounts of time in front of any type of electronic screen. Because a child’s brain is constantly wiring itself throughout adolescence and possibly longer, if that wiring is exposed to constant stimuli, it is possible that it grows to expect it and struggles to function appropriately without it.

Also, I feel the amount of information kids are exposed to throughout their day, I feel, may contribute to a loss of innocence. Children should not necessarily be exposed in an uncensored way to media issues, negative world events or celebrity drama to name a few. Studies have also looked at the degree of insensitivity to violent material or aggressive behavior in children exposed to violent video games. Research here is variable, but there is large support that easy exposure to violent media changes the way our brains view violence.”


Happiness

“We are social beings who thrive off of one-on-one contact as well as verbal and physical affection. Many technologies today deprive us of that.

However, if handled properly, new technologies can actually connect us in ways we haven’t before experienced, like online support groups, talking to old friends or researching places and ideas. These could be helpful in making us feel less alone and more well-rounded.”


According to Jennifer, maintaining mental – and physical health – even with certain increases in technology use requires communication, awareness and balance. But most of all, it’s all about setting and sticking with limits. “We don’t need to be available to everyone all of the time,” she says. “Setting family time has been a proven stabilizer for families for a long time. This has not changed.”

Other tips for families trying to disconnect a little:

  • Turn off the TV at dinner and engage in conversation.
  • Sit down and talk with the whole family without any technology to disrupt you.
  • Turn off all gadgets by a set hour to ensure proper sleep habits.
  • Require homework and other responsibilities be completed prior to TV or computer time.
  • Keep computers and TVs out of children’s rooms.
  • Put safeguards in place, especially for younger kids, including parental supervision and monitoring software.
  • Talk to you children about what they are watching and who they are talking to.
  • Make sure kids keep a balance between time spent in front of a screen and reading, playing outside and exploring their culture.

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