Saul Rosenthal, PhD

Saul Rosenthal, Boston Area Health Psychologist

A recent article published in the academic journal Psychological Science questions the generally held belief that lots of screen time, especially around bedtime, is bad for adolescents. The article, Screens, Teens, and Psychological Well-Being: Evidence From Three Time-Use-Diary Studies followed over 17,000 teens in three countries. 

This is an important study for a number of reasons. First, it includes a very large number of participants. Second, rather than relying on retrospective measures of technology use, the study uses a technique in which adolescents’ use is recorded throughout the day. Third, well-being is measured by caregivers as well as the adolescents. Finally, statistical analysis was designed before data collection. In other words, it’s not a fishing expedition. This is a really nicely designed study, strengthening confidence in its conclusions.

The results in general find very small or non-existant links between screen use time and well-being. Using screens within 30-60 minutes of bedtime show even smaller links. In other words, the study’s findings suggest that screen use does not harm general well-being.

Even though I see all sorts of poor health consequences related to technology misuse, I am confident that the study’s results are valid. The large sample size, procedure for measuring screen time, and pre-designed approach to data analysis make one of the best designed studies we have on the topic. It is a study for others to emulate.

In fact, even before the study, I believed that, in general, screen use does not lead to negative outcomes. Unfortunately, there is an almost universally-accepted assumption that screen time is inherently problematic. It’s poorly tested, but concern about screen time drives legislation, regulations, and plenty of articles and books. So much so that while it is still mostly an assumption, we tend to accept it as Truth. One of the points of the Psychological Science study is to take a systematic look at the assumption. The authors do a great job, and find the assumption doesn’t hold up.

However…

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June 2nd, 2019

Posted In: Parenting, Tech

Last week I shared five tips about helping out when you give your child a smartphone or tablet.

But what about you? All those Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and end-of-year prices are tempting. Maybe it’s time for you to get a new device. If you’re taking an opportunity to treat yourself to a new device, take the opportunity to review and strengthen your usage habits. 

First, this is not about denying yourself the enjoyment of gaming, social media, or whatever you  enjoy on your smart device. It’s about preventing the device from becoming a time-waster that gets you into trouble. It’s about increasing your efficiency. Clean your apps up, reduce distractions, tighten up your privacy. Get your digital habits under control and your brand new shiny device will end up enhancing your life rather than controlling it.

It shouldn’t be news to you that our devices play a growing role in all aspects of our lives. We use the same phone or device for work, school, and play. It also shouldn’t surprise you how easy it is for that same device to slowly start stealing more and more of your time. Before you know it, the device has shifted from a life-enhancer to a time-waster.

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December 14th, 2018

Posted In: Tech

With the end-of-year holidays at hand, you might be thinking about gifting your child a phone or tablet. I’ve previously written about helping your child develop appropriate online skills, and now I want to share some tips about setting your child up for success with their new device.

Many parents (myself included!) feel ambivalent about giving their child a smart phone or tablet. On the one hand, it’s convenient, you can keep tabs on your child, it’s the way of the world, and, of course, “everybody else has one!.” On the other hand, devices and subscription plans are expensive, many apps are a waste of time, social media is a jungle, and, of course, “I didn’t have one when I was your age and I grew up just fine!

It’s true that most children over 10 years old have a cell phone. However, that doesn’t mean it’s simply a matter of buying something and tossing it over to them. You would never do that with your car keys, would you? 

With a little thought and planning, you can help your child develop more responsibility in the online world. Be involved, especially when they first start out, and then slowly let them have more independence. Digital devices have a powerful impact on every aspect of your child’s life. They should enhance your child’s life, not control it.

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December 7th, 2018

Posted In: Parenting, Tech

The World Health Organization recently included Gaming Disorder as a new diagnosis for the upcoming 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The ICD is the diagnostic “bible” used by health care providers around the world. While the exact criteria do not seem available, the WHO defines Gaming Disorder as:

a pattern of gaming behavior (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterized by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

For diagnosis, the behavior must significantly interfere with functioning and exist for at least 12 months.

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September 16th, 2018

Posted In: Internet Addiction

In a recent piece written for the New York Times, Perri Klass, MD lays out ideas for 5 device-free spaces for families. The article does not directly focus on getting our children off of the devices. Rather, parental media use is the focal point.

He starts with Common Sense Media’s 2016 survey indicating that parents spend over 9 hours per day consuming media. About an hour-and-a-half of that time is work-related. The vast majority of time parents spend consuming media is personal. 

What sort of model does that provide to our children? 

Children, whether we believe it or not, do follow our leads. The setting they grow up in becomes the normal and expected way the world works. If it is normal for parents to spend huge amounts of time behind a screen, then that’s what children will also do.

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January 25th, 2018

Posted In: Parenting, Tech

One of the issues that almost always comes up when parents find out I specialize in Internet addiction is whether parental controls and monitoring apps work. I’ve come to realize that what many parents are really saying to me is, “I don’t know how to make sure my child only accesses safe Internet material and I’m pretty sure my kid will get around any control I set up anyway but I don’t know what else to do. Help!” 

Even though I’m a developmental and clinical psychologist specializing in technology use, I realized I don’t really know if parental controls work. I use them for my own child, but I hadn’t given it much thought. I just turned on what I thought was appropriate in the operating system. 

In fact, even though parental controls are ubiquitous — built into operating systems, provided by Internet service providers and developed by a number of third parties — there’s very little in the way of information out there about whether they work or not.

And then I realized the question was more complicated than I thought. What does it even mean to say parental controls “work?” That a child cannot access the Internet at all, at least during particular times? That the child only encounters material the parent deems appropriate? 

To me, the question of effectiveness misses the point, at least in terms of the type of thoughtful parenting which I promote and to which I aspire.

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April 25th, 2016

Posted In: Parenting, Tech

Five tips for developing responsible digital citizenship

It’s an old adage that kids think they are smarter than their parents but that either over time or in any one of countless sit-com scenarios, they realize they are wrong, wrong wrong. 

Except when it comes to technology. 

Kids often really do know much more about technology than their parents. As a developmental and clinical psychologist, I find this a fascinating phenomena that has significant implications for growth, health and society.

As a parent, it freaks me out.

The problem with freaking out is that it often leads in one of two directions (and sometimes both). First, you may avoid the problem altogether. “Whatever my child is doing behind that closed bedroom door is fine. And I don’t want to know about it.” Second, you might try to annihilate the problem. “No access to the Internet, computers, cell phones or tablets. Or to any friend who might have any Internet access or technology that I can’t monitor 24/7.”

In psychology, we call that the fight or flight response. If there’s a threat, you either run away from it or you try to kill it. It’s a useful strategy for dealing with hungry lions, but not so much for most parenting issues.

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March 8th, 2016

Posted In: Tech

One aspect of Internet Addiction (or Problematic Technology Overuse as I call it) that I think deserves attention is the role of impulsivity. Impulsivity follows a sequence:

I See It

I Want It

I Grab for It

We’ve all been impulsive at one time or another, usually without too many bad consequences. Unfortunately, if a person can’t control their impulsivity, they are likely to get into trouble. A child may see candy in a shop and grab it. A driver might see an opening in the next lane and cut in front of another driver. You might see something you want on the Amazon site and click the One Click Shopping button.

In fact, I think that in many ways our natural impulsivity is a driving force (perhaps the driving force) behind the success of the Internet. We see something we want and the Internet makes it really really really easy to get.

How often have you clicked from one link to another, following the promise of something more interesting/useful/fun, until you suddenly realize that much more time has passed than you’d thought? When we impulsively pursue something, our concepts of time and priority change. Impulsive acts are short-lived, distinct events that hyper-focus our attention. For better or worse, the Internet is filled with quickly-achieved targets that provide a taste of satisfaction while frequently promising more if you would just click this one last link…

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April 22nd, 2015

Posted In: Internet Addiction, Neurofeedback

Recently, the Boston Globe and its affiliated web site (boston.com) ran some articles relating to the problems of tech overuse. They got me thinking about how our devices have evolved (some might say morphed) into an extension of ourselves and our social world.

In the first, Rachel Racza describes a study showing that when participants were separated from their iPhones during a task but could hear the phone ring, they reported higher anxiety, showed physiologic symptoms of high anxiety (such as increased heart rate) and performed worse on the task. Russell Clayton, who authored the study, argues that this separation anxiety reflects ways in which our phones are ‘an extension of our physical selves – an umbilical cord, anchoring the information society’s digital infrastructure to our very bodies.’ We feel anxious when we’re away from them because we feel as if an integral part of our self is lost.

The next day, Callum Borchers reports (this appears to be behind a paywall) on emerging apps designed to limit access to smartphones. Restrictions range from blocking certain functions to deactivating the device (except emergency calls) for an unmodifiable period of time. The article emphasizes the novelty of using technology to reduce the use of, well, technology. But anybody involved in serious behavior change should not be surprised by this.

To me, these different articles hit on a common theme — coming to terms with the fact that, like it or not, we have real relationships with our technology. Sure, these relationships have fundamental differences than the types of relationships we have with other people. But our smart phones, tablets and computers are so much more than tools. We interact with them, react emotionally to them and rely on them. Furthermore, they can, more and more, change based on our behavior towards them.

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February 18th, 1015

Posted In: Tech