Screen Time, Part One

Is excessive exposure to screens (phones, computers, tablets, television) dangerous for children’s physical, emotional, and social health? Many experts say it is.

I’m old enough to have had the experience of a single screen in the house while I was a child and teen: the family TV. I remember sitting, virtually comatose, as I watched an unending parade of TV series reruns from the 1950s and 60s on summer afternoons. And then there were the Warner Brothers cartoons, some of which I can still quote from memory. My mother would tell me to get away from the “boob tube,” as she called it, because it would kill my brain cells. Ah, the good old days.

Certainly today, children and teens have a far wider array of options for entertainment and escape than I did in the 1970s. A young person today has access to more entertainment and social media content than they could possibly process in his or her lifetime.

An Internet services company, PwC, estimates that the amount of data stored on the world’s collective Internet servers will reach 44 zettabytes (ZB) by the end of 2020. (Full disclosure: I was unaware what a zettabyte was prior to researching for this article. If you’re interested, a zettabyte is a little more than one trillion gigabytes.) That 44 ZB of data is comprised of videos, audio files, images, websites, social media, and so on. It’s a veritable overload for the senses.

In addition to the static data already on the web, immense amounts of new content are added to the Internet each second. For example, among top apps used by children and teens, What’s App, the texting app, is most prolific, with 752,314 new messages sent each second. Snapchat users share 34,722 new Snaps each second. Instagram users post 1,099 new photos each second. And YouTube, the world’s largest repository of video, adds 500 minutes of video to its servers each second. The world’s data is projected to grow to 175 ZB by 2025.

That’s a whole lot of content for today’s young people to grow up on. And it doesn’t come without risk. Here are three big dangers for young content consumers:

First, the fact that so much content is available to watch isn’t what makes screens dangerous. Rather, it is the nature of these videos: short, stimulating, and colorful. Such content is meant to be addictive. Each time someone views one of these colorful, dynamic videos, it subtly and permanently alters brain chemistry to desensitize dopamine receptors and to create a dependent pattern (an addiction) to similar content. In essence, the reward centers of the brain are reprogrammed to crave more content. And artificial intelligence (AI) is employed in certain apps to detect user patterns (which videos they like and dislike), and to automatically feed the user more content that they have shown they prefer.

Perhaps the gorilla in the room for young people right now is TikTok, an app dedicated to “short form” (15 seconds or less) mobile videos set to music. I have a sixteen-year-old at home who has used TikTok for over a year now, but I’ve never watched it myself. For the purposes of this article, I invested a few minutes looking at the sample video feed on tiktok.com’s home page. The videos were fast, colorful, creative, entertaining and engaging. Before I realized it, a few minutes had grown into an hour. I must have looked at a couple hundred videos during that time, completely unaware of the passage of time.

I was also completely unaware of what I was exposing myself to. A second danger of excessive screen time is the lack of awareness of the content you’re feeding your brain. What subtle messages, behaviors, and attitudes are part of the content you’re watching? They all work to desensitize the viewer, change his or her own attitudes and preferences, and sometimes, introduce him or her to overtly harmful content and ideas. As a matter of fact, this week TikTok was in the news because they were finding it difficult to trace and take down all of the shared versions of a video originally aired on Facebook (and later picked up and spread by TikTok) which apparently depicted a man’s suicide. Young viewers can be exposed to a lot of scary, harmful, and negatively impactful content in a very short period of time.

A third danger of excessive screen use is that it often leads to secondary emotional, social, and mental health problems. Studies have found a strong correlation between internet addiction and anxiety, stress, and depression. These conditions present themselves not only when the viewer is deprived of additional content that is craved by the chemically-altered brain; they persist even while the viewer is looking at such content. Desensitization of the brain’s dopamine receptors is progressive. Consequently, the viewer develops a tolerance for the level of input he or she experiences, and needs more—or more exciting—input in order to achieve the same feeling of pleasure, relief, or escape that they previously attained.

In our next article to be published this Friday, we’ll discuss ways that parents and guardians can help children understand and control the images and messages they see online.

Tim Geiger (M.Div.) is Executive Director of Children's Jubilee Fund. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tim has lived in or around the city most of his life. His undergraduate studies done at the Community College of Philadelphia, Tim went on to earn a Master of Divinity Degree from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is ordained as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Prior to serving at Children's Jubilee Fund, Tim worked for the Internal Revenue Service, The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Harvest USA, where he also served as Executive Director and then President from 2012-2019. Tim lives with his wife and daughter just outside of Philadelphia.

Children's Jubilee Fund is a 501(c)(3) organization established in 1997 to provide tuition grants to Christian schools in the Philadelphia metro area that serve underprivileged students. These grants are then awarded by the schools as scholarships to students who meet income and residency guidelines. Each year, Jubilee provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants that, in turn, help hundreds of students in Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, and Camden Counties achieve their God-given academic and personal potential. Children's Jubilee Fund is an entirely donor-supported organization.