Skip to content →

The Disconnect: Health & Social Risks Associated with Technology

Last month, Nature Valley Canada launched a campaign: #RediscoverNature. It seems this campaign went unnoticed until a week or two ago when it was picked up by the likes of Inside Edition, POPSUGAR and Today. Now viral, the video shows the responses of three generations answering the same question: “When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?” The video and the responses, particularly those of the youngest generation, have a lot of people talking. Lack of physical activity has been a variant in the health issues observed over the years, but how much of a role does technology play here and what are the health and social risks associated with its usage?

My Experience: Millennials (Gen Y; 1980-2000)

I was born in 1993. To put that into perspective, the first “gaming” system I can remember playing is the Nintendo 64. As much as my father or I would have loved to have the system in our home, my mother was totally against video games, so I had to rely on cousins and friends to play with it. I did, however, have the Gameboy. I was probably 5 or 6 when I got the purple Gameboy Color for Christmas.

These gaming systems were loads of fun. I can remember staying up late at night during sleepovers playing Mario Party with friends or battling Pokemon on the Gameboy with my cousins at family parties. But you know what, I also remember playing outside. We built amazing forts, inside with the couch cushions and outside in the trees. Unless it was raining, play dates after school were always outside. We rode bikes or played silly games in the yard using our imagination. We raced around town and rode down the bike trail for ice cream. We would stay up and out late, playing manhunt and truth or dare. Even if it was walking aimlessly, up and down the main street in town, we were always together and always outside.

Each year brought new games and gadgets. But even then, human interaction was essential. Pokemon battles on the Gameboy required two people to sit together, each device connected to one another using a cable. In middle school we went through a phase of Mage Knights and Yu-Gi-Oh, miniature figures and cards that you collected and battled. We walked around the neighborhood with our box of figures and decks of cards, looking for someone to fight. On Saturday mornings we went to the local hobby shop where we battled our figures in tournaments with other players. Looking back on it now, it was a rather bizarre and scary scene. But nonetheless, it provided hours of fun and genuine interactions.

It wasn’t until I was in 8th grade that I got my first iPod. It was the coolest. No apps, they weren’t a thing yet. But I could watch video. Yes, that’s right, video. The fact that you were able to watch movies and TV shows on that little 2.5-inch screen had everyone pretty excited. Next came the iPod Touch, which I was thrilled to be able to buy with my own money. For me, the iPods came before the iPhone ever did. In fact, they came before the cellphone ever would. Unlike “ALL MY FRIENDS,” I didn’t get a cellphone until I was 15 years old; a freshman in high school. “You don’t need one,” my mother constantly told me. And guess what, she was right. Nonetheless, I was thrilled to unwrap a ringing box Christmas morning and find a Motorola Razr. Three years later, at the end of my senior year in high school, I would purchase my first iPhone (3GS) and the Macbook Pro I would take to college. This is probably when my love affair with Apple likely began.

My Sisters: Generation Z (2000 – Present)

I have three little sisters; aged 14, 12 and 10. Born in 2001, 2003 and 2004, respectively; they’ve always been connected. You should have seen their faces when I played them the AOL dial-up tone, their reactions were similar to those of the teens in the popular YouTube video series, Teens React. For them, there has always been a computer in the house and a cell phone in Mom and Dad’s pockets. That cell phone, of course, has always been “smart.” The computer has never been tethered to the wall and using the internet has never been reliant on whether or not someone was using the telephone. This means that they’ve never had to go down into the kitchen to use the desktop computer to access the internet, they can do so right from their beds using Wi-Fi.

Play dates for them are something else entirely. It’s not to say that they’re not outside with their friends, because they are. But all too often I find them and other kids their age sitting on the couch. And although they may be in the same room, it’s like they’re in completely different worlds. As a matter of fact, most of the time they are off in a different world. One may be sitting in the corner reinforcing the walls of their kingdom in Clash of Clans, while the other is on the couch building a castle or killing sheep in Minecraft. Sure, they’ll often play with one another in these virtual worlds, but they do so without even looking at each other. I don’t know about you, but when I see a group of kids who were meant to have a play date, sit in the same room and interact digitally, not physically… It makes me sad.

So what? Us adults are just as connected as these kids are, right? If you stop to look at the data, at the research being conducted, it’s quite alarming.

The Facts

We’re fat. Not “phat” as in cool, fat as in detrimental to our health. Food has a large part to play in what’s wrong with us as a country. Living and studying in London, England, my friends and I often joked that if we ever saw someone overweight they were likely American. If we were to walk up to them to ask a question or get close enough to hear them speak, guess what? They were American. But this food/weight issue is best for another blog post. Let’s take a look at something else.

In 1984, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) established the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). The BRFSS is the nations premier system of health-related telephone surveys that collects state data about U.S. residents regarding their health-related risk behaviors, chronic health conditions, and use of preventive services.The Maps of Prevalence of Self Reported Obesity Among US Adults began a year after the BRFSS was established, with just 15 states taking part in the survey system. Today the BRFSS collects data in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories; completing more than 400,000 adult interviews each year, it is the largest continuously conducted health survey system in the world.

I’ve compiled some the maps of Self Reported Obesity, starting with 1985 and ending with 2013:

You can see that with each year [I’ve displayed maps in 4-year intervals] more states on the map are colored and each color gets darker. Did you notice something different about the last reported map? In 2013, they completely changed the color scheme and reported percentages. Not only have they done away with <10% and 10-14% (meaning 10-14 pounds overweight), they’ve completely changed the baseline. In 2013, 0, <10% and 10-14% were no longer an option. 15-20% in the new baseline of the map. 15 pounds overweight is the new normal in the United States.

A paper published last year by members of the Department of Psychology at California State University examined ill-being among children, preteens and teenagers by media and technology use, independent of the negative health impacts of exercise and eating habits. I suggest you take a look at the paper as it is very interesting, but for now, take a look at the abstract:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2 and limited screen time for all children. However, no such guidelines have been proposed for preteens and teenagers. Further, research shows that children, preteens, and teenagers are using massive amounts of media and those with more screen time have been shown to have increased obesity, reduced physical activity, and decreased health. This study examined the impact of technology on four areas of ill-being— psychological issues, behavior problems, attention problems and physical health—among children (aged 4–8), preteens (9–12), and teenagers (13–18) by having 1030 parents complete an online, anonymous survey about their own and their child’s behaviors. Measures included daily technology use, daily food consumption, daily exercise, and health. Hypothesis 1, which posited that unhealthy eating would predict impaired ill-being, was partially supported, particularly for children and preteens. Hypothesis 2, which posited that reduced physical activity would predict diminished health levels, was partially supported for preteens and supported for teenagers. Hypothesis 3, that increased daily technology use would predict ill-being after factoring out eating habits and physical activity, was supported. For children and preteens, total media consumption predicted illbeing while for preteens specific technology uses, includ- ing video gaming and electronic communication, predicted ill-being. For teenagers, nearly every type of technological activity predicted poor health. Practical implications were discussed in terms of setting limits and boundaries on technology use and encouraging healthy eating and physical activity at home and at school.

I could cite countless articles and research papers similar to the one above. I only suggest you take a look for yourself as they are incredibly interesting.

The Warning: An Opportunity To Change

While I may be at the backend of the Millennial population, much like the parents and grandparents in the Nature Valley video, I think many similarities could be found between the the things I did for fun as a child and the things my parents, even my grandparents did. Talking about my sisters and the rest of Generation Z, I think it’s a lot harder to find those similarities.

It feels like this post has been filled with a lot of technology bashing and that wasn’t what I set out to do. I, more than anyone am guilty of excessive tech-usage. I love my tech. Smartphones, tablets and laptops are incredible tools that enable people to do incredible things. But we often get lost in them. While we’re consuming the information provided to us on these little screens, we’re missing out on what’s happening around us in the real world. I’m thankful for my rather disconnected childhood because I think it makes connecting with people and things in the real world a bit easier. I fear that because my sisters and those born today don’t have that, that lack of connection, it makes going out into the physical world less appealing than the digital one provided to them on their iPads.

I’m brought back to last years viral video, Look Up. In just five minutes, filmmaker and spoken word poet, Gary Turk tells such a compelling story of what has happened to us as an ever-connected society. It’s not good. Technology isn’t gong away though and that’s great, I’m always looking for ways in which I can incorporate tech into my daily life to make things easier and more efficient. What it boils down to though is finding the balance between using these amazing gadgets and being able to put them down; to actually go out into the world and experience life, to make real and genuine connections with people. As Turk says at the end of his poem:

When you’re too busy looking down, you don’t see the chances you’ve missed. So look up from your phone, shut down those displays. We have a finite existence, a set number of days. Don’t waste your life being caught on the net, as when the end comes, nothing’s worse than regret.

Published in Health Personal Technology

Recent Posts