Thanks to rapid developments in technology, we are a more digitally connected society than ever before. Most would agree that technological advancements have vastly improved many areas of life, ushering in an era of instant communication, entertainment, and gratification like we’ve never seen in history. But at what cost?

On average, Americans check their phones 262 times per day. That’s about once every 5-6 minutes. Eighty percent of Americans say they check their phone within 10 minutes of waking up. Fifty four percent say they panic when their cell phone battery drops below 20 percent.¹ On average, children ages 8-12 in the U.S. spend 4-6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spend up to 9 hours.²

Technology, be it in the form of phones, tablets, computers, or other devices—and the media we consume through these devices—has infiltrated nearly every corner of modern life. Screens now fill our days at work, at home, before bed, upon waking, and during travel and have gained powerful influence in how we parent, communicate, relate with others, and execute our jobs.

As humans continue to live increasingly tech-saturated lives, research continues to indicate growing concerns regarding technology’s negative impact on physical and psychological health.

Psychological Effects of Technology

Isolation & Depression

While we are a more connected generation than ever, we are also a lonelier generation than ever. A study of young adults ages 19-32 found that those with higher social media use were more than three times as likely to feel socially isolated than those who did not use social media as often.³

According to a Pew Research survey of teens in 2018, 24 percent of teens surveyed said they felt that social media had a mostly negative effect on their lives. One respondent, a 15-year-old girl, alluded to social media’s potential to harm relationships and result in less human interactions, stating, “It makes it harder for people to socialize in real life, because they become accustomed to not interacting with people in person.”⁴

A growing body of research also confirms the relationship between digital media and depression. There is a potentially strong connection between digital media use and anxiety (including social anxiety), fear, and cyberbullying.⁵

Reduced Attention

Multiple studies have drawn a link between extensive screen time (computer use, watching television, playing video games, etc.) and symptoms of ADHD. Researchers state that the reason for the link between technology use and attention problems is unclear, but may be attributed to “digital multitasking.” The attentional shifts required when using technology, in some cases multiple devices at once, can impair executive functioning. Constant tech use also reduces opportunities for individuals to allow their brain to rest offline in its default mode.⁶

“Our attention is being captured by devices rather than being voluntarily regulated,” says Richard Davidson, neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. “We are like a sailor without a rudder on the ocean, pushed and pulled by the digital stimuli to which we are exposed rather than by the intentional direction of our own mind.”⁷

A mind led by constant digital stimuli leaves little room for imagination, origination of individual thought, and emotional processing.

Physical Effects of Technology

Reduced Physical Activity

Digital tech use perpetuates a sedentary lifestyle, as engaging with technology typically requires doing nothing more than sitting in a chair. The addictive nature of videos, video games, and social media traps many tech users in a cycle of screen time that reduces or altogether eliminates the presence of active hobbies in their lives. Long-term sedentary habits have far-reaching effects. Reduced physical activity can be a major contributing factor in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.⁸ 

Adverse Effect on Cognitive Function

Recent research has examined the effects of media exposure on brain development, particularly in children. In a study of children ages 8-12 years old, more screen time and less reading time was associated with decreased brain connectivity in regions controlling word recognition and language development. High amounts of screen time have been associated with poorer executive functioning and a greater likelihood of behavioral problems in infants and toddlers as well.⁶

Children’s brain plasticity is the greatest when they are young. The growing use of screens among young children is significantly concerning as it may be setting them up for cognitive and developmental struggles that impact their lives far beyond childhood.

Sleep Disruption

It is well known that the light exposure from screens negatively impacts the circadian rhythms that govern sleep. LED screens emit blue light that has been shown to produce changes in melatonin levels, thereby affecting sleep quality.⁶ Sleep experts agree that making the bedroom a screen-free zone is an incredibly helpful step in creating an atmosphere that supports the body’s natural preferences for a sleep environment that is dark and free of distractions, interruptions, and noise stimulants.

Exercise Tech Wisdom

With so many documented concerns about the negative effects of technology on human health, it’s wise to evaluate what steps can be taken to cultivate a healthy relationship with technology, making use of its benefits while minimizing the downsides. 

Technology in and of itself is not the problem. Overuse of technology and the addictive cycles it can lead to are where the real concerns lie. 

A few strategies for wise tech management:

  • Designate tech-free timeframes. Andy Crouch, author of The Tech-Wise Family, suggests this rhythm: “One hour a day, one day a week, one week a year.” That means that for at least one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, you live free of technology (phones, computers, tablets, TV, etc.) as much as possible. Following this rhythm would equate to about 74 tech-free days annually (roughly 20 percent of the year). Crouch writes, “Having these [technology] circuit breakers in our lives really robs these things of their most addictive power, which is their always-on and always-demanding and always-comforting qualities, which may be the essence of addiction. These little disciplines—if they are built into every day, every week, and every year—can really help all of us have much more healthy relationships when the screens are on.”⁹
  • Connect with friends in person as much as possible. Avoid developing strictly “online friendships” that exist mostly over text or video. There is no replacement for the primal spirit of community formed among people who are in the same room together. Recognize the difference between communication and connection. Use technology for communicating with friends, but recognize that true, relational, life-giving connection will almost always happen best in person.
  • Take frequent breaks from your workstation. Many of us rely on technology for our jobs. If at all possible, throughout your work day take frequent breaks to walk around, rest your eyes, stretch, move, and get away from screens. The American Optometric Association recommends using the 20-20-20 rule: After every 20 minutes of screen time, take a 20-second break to look at something at least 20 feet away. This may help reduce eye strain and prevent screen-related tension headaches.
  • Leave your phone at home. The world will not come to a screeching halt if you run a quick errand or take a walk without your phone in your pocket. To break the addictive habit of constant phone checking, experiment with leaving your phone at home for small periods of time and work up to longer periods as your comfortability grows. When you’re home, try putting your phone on silent in another room altogether and living for a few hours without that distraction within arm’s reach. 

The pursuit of vibrant health is a multi-faceted one. Just like the food we eat has the power to nourish or deplete our body, the digital resources we use and the content we consume through them also have the power to nourish or deplete us. At The Wellness Way, we often talk about the Three T’s that can impart disorder within the body: Traumas, Toxins, and Thoughts. 

That third T, Thoughts, is an often overlooked factor. Thoughts are patterns of beliefs that inform mental and emotional distress both consciously and unconsciously. Stressful thoughts and thought patterns can be significantly impacted by technology and frequent screen time. Learning to interact with it in a wise way can be a powerful contributor to a healthier thought life!

Technology is an inevitable and often useful part of our modern life. But as with most modern conveniences, it does not come without risks and drawbacks. Taking an intentional approach to how we engage with technology is a vital step in caring for our health and the health of our families.

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