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Is Excessive Screen Time Slowly Undermining Our Resilience?

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Screen time limits physical activity, openness to experience, and resilience.

By Christopher Bergland – The Athlete’s Way

Posted Oct 10, 2015
Kylie Walls/Shutterstock
Source: Kylie Walls/Shutterstock

Physical activity, openness to experience, and resilience go hand in hand. Through daily physicality—and a spirit of adventure—people of all ages can fortify their mental strength, reinforce their resilience, and practice bouncing back after a dissapointment.Chronic inactivity fueled by excessive screen time is causing our bodies and minds to short circuit. Human beings didn’t evolve to spend the majority of our time staring at a two-dimensional screen and living our lives in a virtual reality. Eventually, spending too much time on digital devices day after day has the potential to rob someone of his or her sense of wonder and awe.Humans need to move our bodies, explore novel enriching environments, and bond with other humans face to face. Doing so maintains brain health as well as psychological and physical well-being. I’m not immune to the powerful lure of spending hours a day online and staring at some type of screen. That said, I strongly believe that excessive screen time is making many of us: lazy, unhealthy, overweight, lonely, anxious, and depressed.

Excessive Screen Time Is Linked to Increased Body Mass Index (BMI)

Recently, researchers at Stanford University analyzed data from the past 20 years and discovered that the number of US adult women who reported “no physical activity” during leisure time jumped from 19.1 percent in 1994 to a staggering 51.7 percent in 2010. For men, the number increased from 11.4 percent in 1994 to 43.5 percent in 2010. During the same period, the average BMI increased across the board and obesity continued to rise. Almost one in three Americans are obese.The 2014 study, “Obesity, Abdominal Obesity, Physical Activity, and Caloric Intake in U.S. Adults: 1988-2010 (link is external),” was published in The American Journal of Medicine.One of the most disheartening aspects of this study is that so few Americans are seeking any type of physical activity in their leisure time. What is the toll on young developing brains, and the human psyche, if we aren’t outside exploring the world around us, but rather living our lives via pixels on a screen?Openness to experience is one of the most important “Big Five (link is external)personality traits. If you aren’t open to experiencing new people, places, and ideas, your mind and brain will atrophy. The potential fear of going into unchartered territories in the real world can snowball into a debilitating phobia if someone doesn’t have the practice of stepping outside his or her comfort zone on a regular basis.For decades, neuroscientists have known that exploring enriched novel environments bulks up gray matter volume and improves white matter integrity in the brain. The psychological cost of being disconnected from other human beings and sealed off in a cyber-cocoon is cause for concern. We must come together and create actionable interventions.Peter Gray’s Psychology Today blog post, “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges,” has gone viral for good reason. The lack of resilience in young Americans today is a crisis that I believe is directly linked to a combination of excessive screen time, the epidemic of sedentarism, and helicopter parenting.

A 21st Century Call-to-Action for Living “The Strenuous Life”

At the turn of the 20th century, the industrial age was really gaining steam. Theodore Roosevelt and other thought leaders feared that increased industrialization and the urbanization of America might lead the general population to become “weak” and less resilient.”The Strenuous Life” was a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt in 1899. In the speech, Roosevelt encourages Americans to embrace strenuous effort for the ‘betterment of our nation and the world’ as we entered the 20th century. A hundred years later, digital technology and excessive screen time created by the information age make Roosevelt’s call to action even more pertinent than it was during the industrial age. Below is an excerpt from “The Strenuous Life (link is external)“:

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.A life of slothful ease, a life of that peace which springs merely from lack either of desire or of power to strive after great things, is as little worthy of a nation as of an individual. I ask only that what every self-respecting American demands from himself and from his sons shall be demanded of the American nation as a whole.”

As he was growing up, Teddy Roosevelt had asthma. He often felt weak and sick. As a young adult, Roosevelt was diagnosed with a heart condition and advised by his doctors to take a desk job and avoid strenuous activity. He refused and became a zealot for the power of vigorous physical activity. His childhood experience planted the seeds for his ideas about the importance of leading a “strenuous life” and avoiding “ignoble ease.”As an adult, Roosevelt exercised regularly. He liked to play tennis, box, go hiking, rowing, horseback ride, and play polo. He also practiced jujutsu and loved to go skinny-dipping in the Potomac River during the wintertime. For Roosevelt, and many others of his generation, recreational sports and organized adventures were the antidote for a lack of strenuousness in their daily lives caused by automation.I can identify with feeling like a 98-pound weakling and the power of sport to fortify your resilience, especially if you feel like an outsider or underdog. When I was at boarding school, I was bullied by my dean for being effeminate and non-athletic. Initially, the bullying created a paralyzing case of “sissy-boy syndrome.” Eventually, I learned how to pretend that I was a Spartan youth who stayed brave in the face of adversity and actually embraced suffering. I romanticized the whole thing. I also used music and my imagination to create a soundtrack that helped me deal with being gay and coming out.The invention of the Walkman in 1983 gave me a way to escape my tortured adolescence by listening to inspiring anthems on my headphones. I loved blasting songs like “Holiday” and “Flashdance… What a Feeling” as well as the album Greetings from Asbury Park when I ran. As a previously troubled teen who suffered from dysphoria, “Comfortably Numb” and The Wall had been in heavy rotation. After I discovered running, I filled my head with songs that reinforced my tenacity, perseverance, and joie de vivre.Running turned my life around when I was a teenager by creating an upward spiral of resilience, positive emotions, and openness to experience. I believe the same metamorphosis is possible for anyone who feels like an underdog or less-than for any reason; if he or she is willing to break a sweat, explore uncharted territories, and get back up after getting knocked down. As Billie Jean King said, “Be bold. If you’re going to make an error, make a doozy. And don’t be afraid to hit the ball.”

Children Should Unplug to Become More Resilient

As the father of an 8-year-old, I realize that limiting screen time is critical for my daughter’s healthy development on all levels. Like every child her age, Erik Erikson would say that my daughter is at an important stage of developing a sense of personal pride and accomplishment. Encouraging her to be physically active and to participate in sports nurtures these needs, as well as, her grit. It also forces her to unplug and avoid excessive screen time.Based on Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development (link is external), my daughter is asking the existential question, “Can I make it in the world of people and things?” I wrote about ways to cope with the potential hurdles of this stage of life in a recent Psychology Today post, “One Easy Question Can Help Break the Anxiety Cycle.” I strongly believe that not being a helicopter parent leads to success at this stage of development and fortifies a sense of independence, competence, and self-reliance.Last night, my daughter and I biked home after eating pizza and salad in Tiburon, California which is a former fishing village outside of San Francisco. As we were biking along the lagoon, the skies suddenly turned a wild orange-ish color. Everything around us became iridescent and began to glow. It was a phenomenal WOW! moment. Both of us were struck with a sense of wonder as we watched the sun set behind the mountains. Below is a snapshot of the experience that I captured with the camera in my phone:

Photo Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo Christopher Bergland

After we got home, my daughter wanted to watch the Disney channel. Her mom is very strict about limiting screen time, so my daughter knew that watching TV was, in some ways, a special treat. In fact, it turned out to be extraordinarily boring after what we had just witnessed on the bike ride home.I had been contemplating the ideas for this post throughout the day yesterday. So, as we sat there zoning out in front of the flatscreen, I realized how mind-numbing the experience was compared to the jaw-dropping experience we had just shared. The juxtaposition of these experiences reaffirmed my conviction about the importance of limiting screen time and encouraging the “strenuous life” of outdoor activity for people of all ages.Louisa May Alcott’s mother realized the importance of letting her children run free and explore the world to build resilience. As a young girl, Louisa May Alcott tapped into a love for running in a way that must have seemed bizarre in the 1800s. She had an ecstatic connection to physical activity and loved to run through the woods. In many ways, she was an ‘ultra-runner’ of her day. Louisa May Alcott famosly said,

“Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy. . . My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.”

Conclusion: “It’s Time for Americans to Get Serious About Exercise”

If Roosevelt or Alcott were alive today, what observations and advice would they have for coping with the epidemic of sedentarism and excessive screen time we face in the information age? Most likely, they would be urging policymakers, parents, teachers, and corporations to mobilize in an effort to avoid a life of “ignoble ease” and to let children “run wild” through rigorous physicality and a spirit of adventure.There is an ongoing debate about whether increased caloric intake or decreased physical activity contributes more to gaining weight. As researchers continue to debate this topic, common sense would suggest that “eating less and moving more” or “balancing calories in with calories out” is the key to maintaining a healthy weight.There is no easy answer to our ongoing battle against obesity. In an editorial response to the Stanford study, Pamela Powers Hannley, MPH, and managing editor, of The American Journal of Medicine, makes a “clarion call” that is, in many ways, an updated version of Roosevelt’s call to action for us to lead a more strenuous life. In a her editorial, Hannley said,

“If we as a country truly want to take control of our health and our health care costs, the Ladabaum et al paper should be our clarion call. From encouraging communities to provide safe places for physical activity to ensuring ample supply of healthy food to empowering Americans to take control of their health, we must launch a concerted comprehensive effort to control obesity.”

There is an easy remedy to the crisis of excessive screen time—simply unplug. Luckily, we are neurobiologically hardwired to feel good when we exercise and connect with people in person. All of us should be making a concerted effort to spend less time on our digitial devices, more time exploring the natural world around us while moving our bodies, and bonding with other human beings face to face.In closing, here’s the final snapshot I took of the sunset last night while biking home. Hopefully, this image will inspire you to spend less time connecting with your digital devices and more time connecting with the amazing and everchanging three-dimensional world available to us when we unplug.

Photo Christopher Bergland
Source: Photo Christopher Bergland
Bergland, Christopher. “Is Excessive Screen Time Slowly Undermining Our Resilience?” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 10 Oct. 2015. Web. 5 Nov. 2015.