When a disturbing mental health trend emerged in the Lubbock emergency department where Eman Attaya, MD, works, it sparked the Texas Medical Association’s newest educational program to help families better control how much their kids interact with electronic devices: Turn It Off Today.
“When I was covering the [emergency room] as a radiologist in 2018, I had been in practice for about seven years, and I had never seen such an uptick in suicide and suicidal attempts in young adults,” she said.
A review of medical literature showed that one of the factors driving suicides – as well as depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems – is increased use of digital devices by young people.
“More and more research is proving that increased screen time – i.e., time spent on digital media such as smartphones, tablets, computers, TV, and gaming consoles – is associated with poor health outcomes in children, adolescents, and even adults,” Dr. Attaya said.
In March 2020, Dr. Attaya launched Turn It Off Today locally with the help of the Lubbock County Medical Society Alliance and the medical society. The TMA Council on Health Promotion approved it in May 2021 for use in a statewide campaign.
Turn It Off Today encourages families to minimize screen time in favor of “green time” – or time outdoors – which has been shown to improve attention and memory, self-esteem, and stress hormone levels while reducing anxiety and regulating natural sleep rhythms.
“The goal of Turn It Off Today is to help families recognize that there is a direct correlation between excessive screen time and poor emotional and physical well-being, and to understand that electronic devices are addictive,” Dr. Attaya said.
Turn It Off Today is especially timely because COVID-19 has taken a heavy psychological toll on children and adolescents. Concerns over the pandemic’s impact recently prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association to declare a “national state of emergency” in children’s mental health.
TMA’s Turn It Off Today materials help parents understand how to regulate screen time for their children based on age and offer suggestions for ways to direct children toward constructive activities, like playing, exercising, and reading.
For families, the most important step is to keep children from becoming dependent on electronic devices, Dr. Attaya says. For instance, parents are encouraged to use time-limit settings on devices, monitor app use, and turn off all devices an hour before bedtime.
One damaging aspect of electronic devices is their ability to interrupt sleep if children are given access to them after bedtime, Dr. Attaya says.
“The kids are staying up at night,” she said. “That time they could have been sleeping is displaced by the screen time, and so they wake up feeling groggy and unrefreshed.”
Parents also are encouraged to avoid giving young children some of the most sophisticated devices, such as smartphones, because they are not yet mature enough to put those devices down on their own, Dr. Attaya says, adding that electronic devices contribute to developmental delays in young children.
“Families should also realize that the earlier teens use digital media, specifically social media, the greater the impact on their mental health,” Dr. Attaya said. “Once families are aware of the negative impact excessive screen time has, they can make appropriate and wise choices about how to limit the use of electronic devices.”
Ready to get involved? Check out TMA's Turn It Off Today outreach toolkit, full of social media graphics and messages, pledge cards, flyers, and more to share with your patients and community.