Ep 170: The Effects of Screentime and How to Deal with It

Episode Summary

Alex J. Packer, author of Slaying Digital Dragons, joins us for a look at technology’s effects on our physical, mental, and social health, and how we can control our own tech use, and not let it control us!

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

For parents, technology can be quite the headache. We want kids to stay connected to the world, but is their iphone distracting them from school? Is all the time spent on social media making them depressed or anxious? Should we be limiting their screen time, blocking websites or supervising them while they’re scrolling through Tik Tok? At this point, it’s tempting to just throw their phones in the trash and forbid them from going on the computer at all!

But if we try to set rules or even just tell them to put the phone down, they’re suddenly slamming the door in our faces or rolling their eyes. Even when we have the best intentions, trying to monitor teen’s tech use can turn into a cycle of nagging and arguing. If we’re going to escape all the bickering, we’ve got to convince teens to make the change for themselves, instead of trying to force them to budge.

Our guest this week is not only an expert on how screens are affecting budding minds, but also has some seriously smart tips for talking to teens about it all. Alex J. Packer spent 14 years as President and CEO of FCD Educational Services, the leading nonprofit providing drug education and substance abuse prevention services for schools across the world. His new book, Slaying Digital Dragons: Tips and Tools for Protecting Your Body, Brain, Psyche, and Thumbs from the Digital Dark Side, touches on a new kind of addiction–the compulsive use of screens in our society, particularly amongst young adults.

 In our interview, we’re diving deep into the harmful effects of tech on teens, and getting into how to help kids cleanse themselves of toxic tech habits.

Why We Should Be Worried About Teens’ Tech Use

Although you may have heard about the negative effects of too much screen time, it can be easy to just dismiss these ideas as myths. If your teen doesn’t seem to be struggling with anything as a result of their new iphone, should you really be worried? According to Alex, you definitely should be. In our interview, he’s laying out several concerning effects of too much tech use–some social, some physical, some psychological and some emotional!

One of the most commonly discussed conundrums of the social media age is the tendency for young adults (and everyone else) to become rather obsessed with online popularity and image. Teens have been concerned with popularity since teenagerhood was invented, but social media has taken the adolescent quest for social status from the high school halls right into your child’s bedroom, says Alex. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat cause teens to think about their status 24/7, by constantly reminding them about likes, shares and followers. No wonder our kids are so stressed out!

There are also plenty of physical effects brought about by all the screen time. Teens (and parents!) can suffer from intense eye strain from spending so much time staring at their tiny phone screens. Alex also explains an issue he calls “tech neck” or the pain, soreness, and bad posture we experience as a result of hunching over our laptops and ipads. There’s the possibility of pain in hand and fingers, but most concerning of all to Alex is the risk to our sleep. In the episode, he explains further why we should be very worried about the effects of screens on our ability to sleep.

The constant stimulation of screens is also a consistent psychological problem, says Alex. It tends to trigger our fight or flight response, which activates our nervous system. Continuously aggravating our body this way leads to chronic stress, which not only affects our bodily health, but our minds as well. Teens might find themselves struggling to focus or remember things, leading their academic performance to falter.

Plus, Alex says there’s science to suggest that having so many devices is affecting teens’ social skills. Research shows that teenagers these days aren’t as comfortable socializing face to face. They aren’t as capable of solving conflict or expressing themselves, Alex explains. In the episode, Alex and I discuss how this can become a cycle: teens don’t socialize in person, and find socializing online easier…meaning they are discouraged from talking to peers in the real world and continue chatting on the internet instead.

Now that we’re familiar with the problems tech can cause our teens, Alex helps us discover some solutions!

Getting Teens to Actually Talk About Tech

It can be pretty tricky to have constructive talks with teens about anything, but their phones and computers are an especially tough topic. Teens tend to dislike the suggestion that they should lay off their screens for any amount of time! Trying to restrict the sites they visit can also be challenging, as teens are pretty determined to have as much independence as possible.

Alex suggests shifting energy away from the power struggle, and instead attempting to create a partnership around tech use. Teenagers will never react well to someone trying to establish control, says Alex. Instead, if you can get teens to understand that you’re on their side, you’ll be much more successful, he explains. 

To start, Alex recommends asking teens some questions to prompt them to think critically about the ways they use their devices. Do they find that they struggle to sleep after using their computers late at night? How often do they look at their phones when they’re socializing with friends in person? Do they tend to look towards their tech when they’re sad or bored? And does it really make them feel better….or do they just end up feeling worse? These questions are some of the first steps teens can take to becoming increasingly self aware about their technology use.

It can also be really helpful to educate teens about the effects of too much tech. They may not realize how much their bodies and minds are being shaped by the technology they use every single day. Once parents explain, teens might make the connection between their own habits and their lack of sleep, or their frequent anxiety, says Alex.

In the episode,  Alex explains how teens can perform what he calls an “app-endectomy”. This is a multi-step process teens can use to cleanse themselves to their toxic tech habits. It starts with teens asking reflective questions about their tech use to understand where they might be going wrong. Then Alex recommends they set one achievable goal, so as not to overwhelm themselves–like aiming to put their phone away two hours before bedtime every night. Alex explains the next steps to this proven method in our interview!

He emphasizes that teens tend to model the behavior of parents. This means that if parents are on their phones at the dinner table, kids will be too. If you want to create a certain culture around technology in your home, Alex suggests starting by exhibiting healthy patterns yourself!

In the Episode…

There are so many useful tips for parents to tackle tech in this week’s episode! On top of the ideas mentioned above, we talk about:

  • Why the internet may be endangering our democracy
  • How screens are affecting the prefrontal cortex
  • Why striving for social status can be dangerous for teens
  • How the pandemic has changed the role of tech in our lives

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, you can find more from Alex at alexjpacker.com. Thanks for listening and don’t forget to subscribe!

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: Talk to me a little bit about the origins of this book. It’s called, Slaying Digital Dragons: Tips and tools for protecting your body, brain, psyche, and thumbs from the digital dark side. What inspired this? Where did it come from? Why did you think this book was so important to write? And where’d you find all this information?

Alex: I wrote the book because of my increasing concern about the impact on growing bodies and brains and social beings of living so much of one’s life through a screen. And I’ve spent most of my professional life working with young people and I wanted to empower them to take charge of their digital lives. What I think happens is, we don’t make decisions about how we want to relate to the digital world. We just grow into that from the youngest age, and I want kids to become mindful of it and to understand how spending so much time on a screen and how the digital world can affect them socially, emotionally, psychologically, affect their relationships. So that’s really why I wrote the book. I didn’t feel there were any books out there that really got into the nitty gritty, the dark side of it, that big tech and social media is really digging around inside you to manipulate and influence and even addict you to their platforms.

Andy: And so the idea then is this book is for young people who want to learn more and get a handle on their digital lives.

Alex: Yeah. It’s aimed at teenagers, but a lot of adults have already told me that they’ve read the book and have had fun and learned a lot. The information is valuable for anybody. And people sometimes say to me, kids are never going to want to read this, what makes you think they’re going to listen to a message, phones are like their significant other and you’re going to just turn them off and they’ll get defensive. And I couldn’t disagree more with that because what I see is teens are concerned about phones.

Alex: In two different surveys, 40% and 50% of teens said they feel addicted to their phones. And 90% believe that it is a problem for people their age. So I think there’s receptivity. They know that it distracts them. They know that it compels them to constantly be online to keep up with things. I think they are open to learning more about how this might affect them and ways, the tips and tools that they can use to protect themselves.

Andy: Yeah. So you say you’ve been working with young people for a long time. What do you mean by that?

Alex: Well, I’m trained as a psychologist and an educator. And for many years I was the head of an alternative middle school for kids. And then for, gosh, I think about 11 years, I ran leading nonprofit provider of substance abuse, prevention, and education for schools around the world. So I come at this from many different angles and I probably spend eight to nine hours a day on a screen. I’m not coming at this from some judgmental holier than thou position, my position is the digital world is a miracle. It’s absolutely unbelievable what we can do with it, how it enhances our lives, but as much as it’s a miracle, it’s a monster. And we have to be aware about both sides in order to take charge of our digital lives so that our phone is our tool and we don’t become its tool.

Andy: And so that’s something that you’ve been seeing with young people more recently is a difference in the way they relate to digital devices or their relationship with their smartphones and their relationship between their offline and online self is becoming more reactive or less proactive or what?

Alex: Well, I think the pandemic has revealed a lot to teens and all of us about the role of the digital world in our lives because on the one hand it was life saving. Where would we have been all locked up in our homes if we didn’t have the internet so that we could work remotely, go to school remotely, connect with our friends. So to a great extent, I think it really saved lives quite literally. And it kept people from just going totally bonkers.

Alex: At the same time, I think kids realized, adults too, that remote learning is just a shadow of face to face in person learning. And you can have all the zoom parties you want with your friends online and it’s nothing compared to being together with your friends. I always got emotional during the pandemic when I saw videos of birthday parties where kids would walk by someone’s house or teachers would drive by and drop diplomas on kids’ porches because they couldn’t do it in person.

Alex: And the joyfulness of people even if they’re waving from a distance at their friends and their teachers, it reminded everybody of the essential nature, the need for in-person human communication. And in the most recent survey I’ve seen about this, the number one preferred communication method of teens is texting. So maybe that survey was pre-pandemic. I’ll be very curious to see if after the pandemic, maybe it changes, but talk about a warning sign, kids prefer to text their friends than to be with them face to face. That concerns me.

Andy: What do you think is going on there?

Alex: Well, many things. I think adolescence by definition is a very difficult challenging time especially socially and teens are compelled to seek popularity. There’s even an evolutionary basis for, if you think back thousands of years, earlier humans once they developed communication, they discovered that working together, banding together, forming alliances, sharing food, sharing shelter, made them safer.

Alex: So in a sense, seeking popularity, being popular, increased your chances that you would be included in those alliances of security. So you fast forward to today, well, teens don’t have to worry about charging lions or going out to hunt every evening for dinner, but that need, that desire to bond and belong and communicate and form friendships, that continues. And if you think about it, that is the currency of social media, becoming popular because it’s almost too in your face, think of likes and shares and favorites and retweets and thumbs up and followers, you are getting a 24/7 report card. And for teens, I think that is a huge stress. And all the research on popularity has revealed that basically, and I’m simplifying here for my own brain, but basically there are two types of popularity.

Alex: One is status seeking and those are the cool kids in high school. They’ve got the coolest clothes and cameras and iPhones and cars and they’re the trendy ones. And they’re constantly seeking that status and having to maybe even fight to maintain it.

Alex: The other type of popularity is what you could call likability. And those are people who are likable because they’re friendly, they’re warm, they show an interest in you. They’re responsible. They honor their commitments. And what the research shows is that teens who had status popularity during adolescence do much worse later in life. They have poor friendships, poor intimate relationships. They make less money. They have more health issues, whereas the likable kids carry that into their adulthood. And on those similar measures, they do much better.

Alex: So what I see happening to tie it back to the digital world, I think social media for many kids is putting status seeking popularity on steroids. And they live and die based on how many likes a post got. And so I think not only is it creating in the moment, a great deal of stress and for some kids, depression, low self confidence, but I think it is setting them up for later in life, you carry those same filters with you and they make you more aggressive, more suspicious, more stressful, you’re focusing on things that don’t contribute to your happiness and fulfillment.

Andy: Well, so you talk in the book about a lot of different ways that screen time really affects us, affects our body, our sleep, our eyes. It can affect different aspects of our body, our reproductive system, and risk taking even, behaviors, our brain gets affected by it. What do you think are some of the most surprising things for teenagers or if you’re talking to teenagers about this stuff, what are some of the effects that they maybe don’t know about or that are most interesting to them in order to start having discussions with them about this stuff?

Alex: Well, I think it’s easiest to think of these possible effects in categories. You mentioned a number of them. Just any repetitive physical action is going to affect your body.

Andy: Sure.

Alex: So you have the eye strain from staring at a tiny screen. What we call tech neck, you can have aches and pains in your neck, in your shoulders, in your hands and fingers, poor posture, because you’re constantly bending over and looking down at your device. And maybe the most troubling of all is disrupted sleep because so many kids spend hours on their phone right before sleep. And not only the blue light that comes from the screen, but the stimuli that assault you. Most screen use is not meditative. It’s not focused. You’re being assaulted constantly with all these sounds and colors and flashes and stropes. And let’s say the last thing of the day, you’re looking at your social feeds and there’s disturbing stuff that comes your way.

Alex: So right before going to bed, your being is filled with emotional arousal or upsetment, or somebody said something mean. So that all can disrupt your sleep and poor sleep is one of the most significant potential health problems for all people. So then we can move over to the brain as a category of possible effects. And I was just talking about this assault on your brain from your phone and the prefrontal cortex of your brain, that’s where all the higher functions occur. So good judgment and learning and remembering and being able to focus for extended periods of time. And adolescence is when your brain is really prime for a major period of growth.

Alex: So you want to be bulking up the prefrontal cortex, but what happens is all those stimuli coming your way and studies show that young people switch what they’re doing online like every 19 seconds. So this constant back and forth, instead of bulking up the higher functions, it is triggering your fight or flight response because your brain doesn’t know when it suddenly receives an assault of sound and fury, it doesn’t know whether that’s an elephant charging at you or whether it’s, oh, another TikTok video.

Alex: So that puts you in a constant state of nervous system arousal, that can leave to chronic stress. Think of if you’re watching an incredible car chase in a movie, your body is responding as if it’s real and you can measure your heart rate, your blood pressure, all sorts of things. It’ll be responding like it’s a real event, even though your brain knows it’s all fake you’re seeing it on a screen. So that’s a lot of what’s going on in the brain. And if it’s affecting you that way, it can lead to poor grades, poor academic performance, forgetting a lot of things. So you can just see how… It’s like ripples that extend out in many ways.

Alex: I’ll just say a few things about the social aspects because that’s where it’s harder for teens and what seems to be happening is that because teens are leading so much of their lives online, they’re not developing social skills to the same extent or at the same pace in a pre-digital world. So a lot of teens are uncomfortable face to face. They don’t really know how to deal with people. How to solve conflicts. How to express themselves. And that’s why they are drawn to socializing online. You have the protection of, oh, it’s just a text. Or I can say it in six seconds, that kind of thing. And we’re seeing that teens are much more sheltered now than they used to be. They don’t volunteer as much. They get drivers licenses at later ages. They don’t go out as much. They don’t date as much because they can just sit at home and do so many things.

Andy: Why do all that effort? I can just flick my thumb.

Alex: Yeah. So a lot of basic street smarts are not developing. And then you’ve got a reinforcing cycle where if kids are feeling socially uncomfortable, it makes them even more want to socialize within the realm of their devices rather than offline. And then of course for some kids, we’re getting into a realm where they’re really addicted to their phones. And I know it’s controversial using that term addiction, but my preferred definition for addiction is the psychological and/ or physical inability to stop compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. So I think when you think of it that way, many teens just can’t put their phones down and once you’re addicted, that can really take over and become the tail wagging the dog of your life.

Andy: A lot of that lesser forms of addiction are habits and it becomes just so habitual. And you talk in the book about identifying habits and triggers when it comes to phone and technology use, what does that look like? And how do we do that? Why is that important?

Alex: It’s important because the way teens can take charge with the digital lives is to recognize what they’re doing essentially, to become self-aware. And even though my book goes deep into this dark side of big techs manipulations and data tracking and all of that, it’s a very funny life hearted interactive book. And your question gets right to the heart of some of the interactivity. So let me talk about that a bit.

Alex: The first part of the book is called reflect, and that’s where I present kids with nine pretty wacky challenges, they’re research based, but they’re fun to help them discover their own screen scene. And that’s where we get into what you were referring to. I ask them to look at their digital habits, how do they use their phones? Do they always have it with them? Do they keep it on when they sleep? Is it right next to their bedroom? Do they have it on when they’re having lunch with friends. So getting them aware of what those habits are and sometimes there might be specific triggers, they might realize when I’m upset, I go to my phone or when I’m bored, I do it. Or maybe they tend to use their phone, external triggers like a text, a phone call, but then they’re captive every time that notification comes. And I plead guilty to this as well, if I’m next to my phone and I hear the sound, I just grab it. It’s a reflex.

Alex: So I ask kids in this reflect section, what apps do they use and how much? Get a sense of what proportions of your screen time are spent on what apps or doing what activities. And then how do you feel right before and right after spending time. And a kid might discover, gosh, I feel pretty crummy every time I go on that app or I feel wonderful every time and that’s valuable information. So as they’re taking these challenges, they can either fill out in the book or they can download from the publisher’s website, the forms where they can record their answers.

Alex: Another big section for becoming self aware of your screen scene is where I present them with potential warning signs for problematic or excessive use. And that gets into what we were talking about, what our potential consequences. So it can be everything from some of the physical consequences, my eyes hurt, my neck hurts, or it can be I feel awkward when I’m face to face with people or my screen time keeps increasing or I’ve tried to limit how much time I spend without success. There’s like 20 different warning signs.

Andy: Okay. Yeah.

Alex: And I ask kids, how many notifications do you get each day? So you put all of that together and it gives them a really good picture of their screen scene. Then, in the next section of the book, that’s really the tips and tools section where I describe in great detail, but I hope very funny detail, how big tech is sinking its clause into every aspect of their existence. You really can’t think of an area nowadays where big tech isn’t trying to influence you or get you to relate to that area of existence through technology. So if I’m talking about the ways in which social media could harm your self-esteem or could create these negative thought loops where you’re always saying to yourself, oh, I’m not cool. I hate myself. I look so terrible. Everybody else’s life is better than mine, you may recognize that in your own life.

Alex: And then all that leads to the final section which I call reset. And that’s where I present a process that I call giving yourself an appendectomy. It’s a guided self intervention designed to help you cut out those aspects of your digital life that are causing you harm or imbalance or discomfort so that you can create a more healthy relationship to your devices and the time you spend on a screen. So the book is not a screed against these devices, it’s empowerment so that you take charge of them and use them to enhance your life.


About Alex J. Parker

Alex J. Packer, Ph.D., is the author of 11 books including Slaying Digital Dragons and the award-winning bestseller, How Rude!. Among Alex’s other books are Bringing Up Parents, Highs!, and 365 Ways to Love Your Child

A recognized expert on adolescent development, parenting, and substance abuse prevention, Alex served for 14 years as President and CEO of FCD Educational Services, the leading nonprofit provider of onsite K-12 drug education and substance abuse prevention services for schools throughout the United States and in over 60 countries abroad. For eight years, Alex was headmaster of Parkmont School in Washington, D.C., an innovative alternative school for children ages 11-15. He also served as Director of Education for the Capital Children’s Museum. 

Alex is sought after by the media for his provocative commentary on manners, child-rearing, and substance abuse prevention, and has been the subject of numerous radio, television, and print interviews. He speaks widely across the United States and around the world. Recent talks have taken him to locations as far-flung as Caracas, Buenos Aires, Paris, Hamburg, Dominican Republic, Mexico City, and Beijing. Numerous associations have invited Alex to speak and lead workshops at their conferences, including the European Council of International Schools (ECIS), National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), Association of American Schools of South America (AASSA), Association of Boarding Schools (TABS), Association for the Advancement of International Education (AAIE), and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). Alex keynoted at an all-day parenting conference at the Javits Convention Center in New York City along with co-presenters Howard Gardner, Penelope Leach, and Adele Faber.

In his spare time, Alex flies ultralight aircraft without crashing, spends five months a year in France, dabbles in vintage sports cars, and chews with his mouth closed.

Want More Slaying Digital Dragons?

Find Alex on his website, Twitter, and LinkedIn.