December 14, 2021
As families spend time with loved ones this holiday season, physicians say immersing oneself in electronic devices like phones and laptops can stand in the way of creating bonds and feeling connected. To combat this, Texas doctors recommend everyone “turn it off.”
“Families are physically gathering together, but each member is personally engaged and distracted with their electronic devices, and not interacting with each other,” said Eman Attaya, MD, immediate past chair of the Texas Medical Association (TMA) Council on Health Promotion.
The problem, she said, is these devices promote loneliness and isolation, while hindering meaningful social interactions.
To help people unplug and connect, TMA launched a new initiative, Turn It Off Today, to encourage families to pledge to take a break from electronic devices. The program aims to reduce the amount of time people – especially children and adolescents – spend looking at their screens.
“We must remember that face-to-face interactions (offline interactions) and strong social ties are associated with greater life satisfaction and overall well-being than online interactions,” said Dr. Attaya, whose TMA council launched the initiative statewide. Previously, Dr. Attaya and her fellow physicians and alliance members at the Lubbock County Medical Society and the Lubbock County Medical Society Alliance created Turn It Off Today in 2019 for area families to adopt; TMA’s program replicates that.
The program’s goal is to encourage families to swap time spent watching movies, playing video games, or scrolling through social media with “green time” (time outdoors). Dr. Attaya recommends families instead try walking, hiking, biking, and other sports during the holidays, adding, “studies have shown that being outside promotes physical activity, attention restoration, stress reduction, improved memory and sleep, and even healthier cortisol levels.”
Other activities to consider include playing board games, doing arts and crafts, creating an indoor garden, cooking/baking together, playing music, reading, or learning a new hobby.
Turn It Off Today features a pact for family members to sign, pledging several ways to limit screen time. One example is switching off phones, computers, tablets, or other devices a few hours every day. Another pledge calls for simply disengaging phone alerts, which draw people’s attention to the device. Setting time limits on apps and removing electronic devices from the bedroom will also help reduce screen time.
Dependence on electronic devices has been increasing over the years, but the pandemic has made them an integral part of people’s daily lives. Children and adolescents spend at least four hours daily on leisure-based screen time (and up to nine hours total screen time per day).
Too much screen time can lead to depression and anxiety, developmental delays, sleep deprivation, thoughts of suicide, lack of focus, and obesity. Staring at screens more than an hour each day also is tied to less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability, and less ability to complete tasks. People can even experience physical changes in the brain such as “grey matter volume loss.”
The program recognizes that abandoning technology entirely is not practical. It aims to educate families on the detrimental side effects of too much screen time while developing a plan to help limit use.
“Taking a break from technology, participating in nonscreen activities, and socially engaging face to face will improve our overall emotional and physical well-being,” said Dr. Attaya. She hopes families will pledge to turn it off and spend quality time together instead.
TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 55,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans.
Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320
Swathi Narayanan (512) 370-1382; cell (408) 987-1318