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Are Screens Making Us Sick

Columnist: Kirk Pappas, M.D.
April, 2017 Issue

Kirk Pappas, M.D.
All articles by columnist

The average teen (and pre-teen) spends more than six hours per day looking at their cell phone, TV, iPad and computer.

Last year, Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa hosted a physician wellness event at the recommendation of one of our family practice physicians. During this event, we watched “Screenagers,” a documentary created by Delaney Ruston, M.D., a Stanford-trained primary care physician and mother of two, whose intention was to begin a dialogue around “screen-time” and our children. Ruston was looking to help parents and children find balance in this “tech-filled” world we live in including finding balance with the exposure her own children were experiencing.

The film and its viewing with physician-parents and their children generated many important hours of conversations around health, family, as well as physical, emotional and spiritual wellness. Here are some of the key takeaways from the event:

The average teen (and pre-teen) spends more than six hours per day looking at their cell phone, TV, iPad and computer.

The potential of addiction, along with the threat of social isolation may contribute to mental health issues while a lack of aerobic exercise may contribute to physical health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Medical research shows that kids who have a TV in their bedroom are 1.3 times more likely to be obese, even if they participate in sports.

In 2014, a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed a decrease in initiation of sleep and an average of 20 minutes less restful sleep in 4th-7th graders who had access to a phone in their rooms at night. (Guess what pediatricians recommended children have in their rooms instead? Yes, an old-fashioned alarm clock!)

Parents should negotiate screen time agreements with their children. (See my column “The Healing Power of Conversation,” NorthBay biz, June 2016.)

The impact of negative screen time

The film also supported the plea to reduce cyber-bullying among our youth. I couldn't help but reflect on this since we watched this film was in the midst of last fall's election. At age 55, I wasn’t around for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but I understand they were quite negative with personal attacks.  Similarly, the negativity of this last election is still affecting many people. What can we do about it?  As adults and leaders, we have the responsibility and obligation to be better role models for our youth, our colleagues, and our employees when it comes to addressing this issue of "screen time" and how it can affect our lives. 

Check out for yourself the amount of negativity you are exposing yourself to:  1) Open your cell phone or web browser to your first choice of news.  2) What percentage of the news you see is “positive” and what percentage is “negative?” I suspect that the percentage of negative outweighs that of positive.  What is that old saying?  "If it bleeds, it reads".

Let's consider how to work through this negative screen time dilemma.  Dr. Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has written and published extensively around the impact of negative news.  Her book, “Mind the Gap: Coping with Stress in the Modern World”, offers proactive solutions. Following are her recommendations:

• Take a media vacation.  Turn off the news from time to time, and that means TV, radio, online news sources and, especially Twitter feeds.

• Think critically about a media diet.  Make sure you give yourself healthy portions of positive media and think about what you're exposing yourself to.

• Regulate the flow of news in your life.  Become aware and then modify your screen time.  You don't have to listen all the time. Be informed, but not inundated with negative news.

• Consider what’s causing anxiety.  When you continue to seek out or search for worrisome news on the Internet, it brings only more depressing news.  Is the exposure to negative news causing negative emotions, or is there something else creating the anxiety you experience?

Take the first step

One of the most impactful steps you can take is to promote (or host) a viewing of "Screenagers." Take that first step and help parents and children find healthy solutions and strategies for living with technology today. For more information, go to




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