Huffpost Parents
Lori Leibovich Headshot

Here's What A Constantly Plugged-In Life Is Doing To Kids' Bodies

Posted: Updated:


Infographic by Alissa Scheller for The Huffington Post.

If it seems like your kids are constantly plugged in, tapping away on their iPhones, obsessively gaming and SnapChatting way more than they're actually ... chat-chatting -- well, that's because they are. It's estimated that children ages 8 to 18 spend an average of seven hours a day behind screens; teens send an average of 3,417 text messages each month; and 97 percent of adolescents have at least one electronic device in their bedrooms.

What's just as scary as how much time kids spend on screens is the effect it can have on their health. Their backs and wrists are sore, their sleep is disrupted and their attention spans are diminished.

While it would be impossible to rid your kids' lives of technology completely -- and you wouldn't want to, because of its many joys and benefits -- parents can take a few measures to help prevent its negative mental and physical side effects.

Here are some ways screens may be harming your kids' bodies and what you can do about it:

They're Hunched Over, And Their Necks And Upper Backs Are Sore

The human body's natural position is an erect posture with a little bit of lordosis (inward curve) in the neck and a bit of kyphosis (round curve) in the upper back. A person sitting at in front of a computer is likely to have rounded shoulders and forward head posture, which puts a strain on the muscles and joints, causing soreness and fatigue.

What To Do: Dr. Sherilyn Driscoll, a doctor of pediatric physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center, recommends that parents be conscious of ergonomics when kids are at their computers: It should be on a desk with the keyboard at hand level, there should be a supportive backrest, and kids should try to maintain an upright position.

They're Less Active

Research has linked childhood obesity to too much screen time. In a recent study, 61 percent of obese boys and 63 percent of obese girls reported watching television for two or more hours each day. Studies have also suggested that TV viewing habits in childhood can predict obesity risk in adulthood.

What To Do: According to government guidelines, kids and teens should get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day at least three times a week to increase strength and develop strong muscles.

Their Fingers And Wrists Are Suffering

Wrist and finger pain is common in kids who play video games. A study (done by a kid!) found that children were 50 percent more likely to experience pain for every hour they spent gaming. Dr. Eric Ruderman, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, said video game playing may be harmful for children's developing muscles and tendons.

Too much texting can also lead to soreness and cramping in the fingers, known as "text claw." According to a 2012 Nielsen report, the average teen sends 3,417 texts a month, which is about seven an hour. Ouch.

What To Do: Ruderman says parents need to limit game time: Two hours per day is too much for a 7- or 8-year-old. Additionally, HuffPost Healthy Living has put together a comprehensive guide to alleviate pain from smartphone use that you can share with your teen.

Their Sight Could Be Affected

Teens' constant use of electronics at home and at school is taking a toll on their eyes, according to David Epley, a pediatric ophthalmologist in Kirkland, Wash., and a spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Whenever someone spends time in front of a screen their "blink rate" goes down, which can lead to dry, itchy eyes and eye strain. While teens' eyes can get used to screens, Epley said, damage can develop over time and even cause myopia, or nearsightedness.

What To Do: The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that a computer user shift focus away from a screen every 20 minutes and take 20 seconds to look at something that is at least 20 feet away. "This gets you blinking again," Epley said. "And restores moisture to the surface of the eye."

Their Sleep Is Disrupted

According to a 2010 Pew Study, 4 out of 5 teenagers sleep with their cell phones on and near their beds. And they're not just using phones as alarms; another study found that teens send an average of 34 texts a night after getting into bed.

Teens' sleep can be disrupted by screens because the bright lights that glow from the devices "wakes up the brain," Michael Decker, a sleep specialist and associate professor at Case Western School of Nursing, told The Huffington Post. The light can confuse the brain since our circadian pacemaker does not differentiate between the sun and a computer screen. "Teens are getting this bright light and it's making them go to bed later and want to sleep later," said Decker, "but they can't deal with the sleep loss." Not getting enough sleep has a psychological effect on teens, and can lead to irritability and poor social skills. Memory is also negatively affected, which in turn can diminish academic performance.

What To Do: The National Sleep Foundation recommends that teenagers get 9.25 hours of sleep each night (although for some kids, 8.5 hours is enough). Dr. Suzanne Phillips suggests discussing a nighttime plan with your kids -– either phones off after 11 p.m., or requiring them to charge it in another room overnight.

They're Losing A Little Bit Of Hearing

One in 5 teens has experienced hearing loss -- a number that's increased in recent years. Though it hasn't been proven, experts suggest loud music coming from digital music players could be to blame. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Personal music players, such as MP3 players, can cause lasting hearing loss if you turn the volume up high enough to mask the sound of other loud noises, such as those from a lawn mower."

What To Do: The Associated Press points out that parents can set the maximum volume on their kids' iPods and lock it with a code.

Their Brains Are ... Different

Breathe out. There is no hard evidence to suggest that technology is rotting your kids' brains. Sure, screens can be harmful: Today's teens are more distracted; social media can contribute to psychological problems; and most obviously, they can't read maps.

But there are also benefits to growing up with technology. Dr. Larry Rosen, author of Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and The Way They Learn, says that social media can help teens find their identity in the world. A recent study found that interactive tools did help kids learn. Toddlers who interacted with the screen picked up concepts and words faster.

While experts on both sides of the issue have strong opinions, most agree that moderation is key. And as parents, one must look at one's own screen habits and remember that the kids are watching. "Kids do not need our undivided attention all day long, but they do in those real-life moments of talking and reading and doing the hard work of parenting -- dealing with meltdowns, teaching them how to pick up their clothes," Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, told The Huffington Post.

So, moms and dads, it's time to walk away from the computer, put the phone down and enjoy your kids face to face.
(After you share this article with your friends.)

Suggest a correction

Around the Web

5 Truths About Teens and Screens: Effects of TV, Cell Phones ...