Extreme Screen Time: The New Normal at What Cost?

I watched, mesmerized, as the woman next to me kept tapping and flicking her fingers over the iPad screen. In her mid-forties, she was as glued to the bright colors and animations on the screen as her two young kids sandwiched next to her, tapping away on their own tablets. The airplane aisle looked like an overcrowded light show -- and at first glance, didn't surprise me. As the hours went by, I observed the family. There was no conversation between the group. A few hours into the take-off, I admired the sunset outside the window, and the youngest child across the aisle -- taking her eyes off her tablet for the barest of a second -- did as well. The mother and older sibling shushed her the second she mentioned it, and continued tapping and flicking away. The youngest shrugged, and went back to tapping away on her tablet. When one tablet's battery ran out, the siblings entered a wrestling match for the remaining tablet. The mother barely looked away from her game long enough to pluck the other tablet away, announce that they had played for long enough, and continued tapping and flicking away on her iPad. The kids argued vocally for a few minutes until realizing that their mother had absolutely no intention of even hearing them. Eventually, they fell asleep, and their mother continued cheerfully on her iPad for the seven hour flight -- more colors, more animations, more tapping, more flicking.

Now, I like Fruit Ninja or 2048 or Cut the Rope as much as anyone else. The games are designed to be addictive, colorful, and attention grabbing. There is a whole science to gaming -- research, literature and evidence is used to create these games, and I appreciate that. In fact, at my company, CyberDoctor, we built a game called PatientPartner that drives clinically meaningful behavior change through the use of gaming theories. However, recently, there has been coverage and focus on children's use of tablets -- the AAP released guidelines suggesting that children and teenagers only use tablets for entertainment two hours a day.

The average use -- educational content including -- is about seven hours per day for a child. That is staggering. Seven hours a day staring a screen of some sort is nearly fifty percent of a child's day! What concerns me more, however, are the long term consequences of interacting with technology in this way for both children and adults. Even if we limit use, it's worth considering seriously the long term impact of technology on brain functioning. The recent study, from Flinders University in Australia, that showed we attribute human emotion to emojis was terrifying at best. We can empathize with sadness when we see a little yellow circle with an arch in it. We can feel joy when we see a little yellow circle with an upside down arch in it. There are actual neural circuits that are changing and adapting as a result of our technology use While the news barely made a blip on the media radar, it is worth paying attention to because of the questions it proposes.

Could our technology use over years and generations create evolutionary changes? Are we rewiring our brains in ways that will help evade neurodegenerative diseases in the future, or cause different kinds of neurodegenerative diseases? Does playing Fruit Ninja every day for a year cause changes in the way our eye muscles function? There is no precedent for technologies like Google Glass or iPads. As we embrace the new and exciting possibilities that they offer, we should also be aware and ready for the new challenges that they may present us with. Given the ubiquitous and enormous impact of these technologies, funding and support to study the impact of digital technologies on our brain processes should be at the forefront of research efforts today.