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Exploradio brings you captivating stories about science worth discovering and examines powerful questions worth answering.

Poor Posture and Depression Top the List of the Hazards of Screen Time

Cell phones are ubiquitous and distracting. Research is teaching us that all this screen time can impact our mental and physical health.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans are online. About three-fourths of adults use social media, and that number is higher for teens and young adults. It's a monumental societal change that we're still coming to grips with.

In this week's Exploradio, WKSU's Jeff St.Clair talks with local researchers who are exploring the hazards of screen time.

Americans spend nearly 50 hours per week in front of a screen, according to Nielsen, with most of that in front of a TV, and especially among young people, on smartphones, PC's and tablets.

What's all this screen time doing to us?

On a basic level, staring into a cell phone makes us more slouched.

Michael Barber is on the swim team at Hiram College. He says when not in the water his teammates often hunch slump-shouldered over their phones, which drives the coach crazy.

"He's like, 'Phones up!'  'Stand up straight!' 'You're all going to be rounded soon,'" says Barber.

Michael Rebold
Michael Rebold is director of the Integrative Exercise Science program at Hiram College and teaches exercise physiology. He studies how tech and exercise overlap.

It's advice Hiram exercise physiologist Michael Rebold backs up with his research on the physical effects of cell phone use.

"Texting is the worst," says Rebold.

He says people staring at cell phones, even while exercising, aren't doing their bodies any favors.

"They may suffer from kyphosis, lordosis, and other back abnormalities at a younger age."

Otherwise known as text neck, the slump-shouldered, slightly swaybacked posture you see when people hunch over their phones.

Rebold's work is adding to a body of research showing cell phones can be a dangerous distraction. 

A growing list of hazards
Studies at Ohio State University have shown that texting while walking increases your chances of getting hit by a car by 50 percent.

Screen time is eating into our sleep time, leading to poorer performance at work and school and contributing to everything from stress to obesity.

And our digital lives are getting in the way of relationships, with couples checking their phones on a date, and kids spending hours alone watching YouTube.

Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh, says he's a little worried about the online world we've created.


"We really are in an epidemic of mental-health issues," says Primack. With near record suicide rates in the U.S., he is concerned that our online habits may be affecting our mental health.

His studies examine how social media use can lead to increased feelings of social isolation and depression among young people.

He says one interesting finding is that the more types of social media you use, the worse the effect.

"The number of platforms is even more predictive, or even more highly associated with the outcome of depression," says Primack.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Reddit. Tumblr.

"It's almost like trying to be friends with seven groups of people in high school. You never really dig into any one of them, or you're always seen as a bit of an outsider."

Add social media addiction to the list
A pair of local researchers say the down-sides of social media depend a lot on what you're using it for.

Erin Hollenbaugh is program coordinator for communications studies at Kent State Stark. She studies the effects of social media with colleague Amber Ferris at the University of Akron Wayne College.

Erin Hollenbaugh teaches communications at Kent State's Stark campus.

She says using social media to gain a better understanding of yourself by lingering over other people's postings can lead to a dependency that can have "the negative effects of addiction."

Social media addiction, according to Hollenbaugh, means it negatively intrudes on your life, leaving less time for things like sleep or relationships, and it effects your personality, causing anger, guilt, and nervousness.

Her research partner Amber Ferris teaches at the University of Akron's Wayne branch.  She says low self-esteem combined with social media can create a negative feedback loop where you worry about keeping up with the virtual lives of your Facebook friends.

"It is fun and it is entertaining sometimes to see people's pictures of their kids and their puppies, and their cars, but if I'm using that to compare myself to those things, it could be harming me."

On the positive side, Ferris and Hollenbaugh did not see any negative effects from people who use social media to pass the time, or for news and information, when in moderation.

A food pyramid for tech health
Ferris acknowledges that for young people growing up today there really is no choice but to be part of the digital revolution.

Amber Ferris teaches communication studies at the University of Akron Wayne College. She studies why people are drawn to use social media and what effects it has on us.

"If you don't have Facebook, Twitter, or Snapchat you're left out completely, and that may be actually just as damaging as trying to protect your kid from those types of things," says Ferris.

What's needed, says Brian Primack at the University of Pittsburgh, is a clear set of guidelines on healthy media use.

"What we would like to try to do is the research to get an evidence based 'food pyramid' of sorts for social media," says Primack.

He says social media is like food, we need it to live in today's world, but as with a diet with too much junk food instead of vegetables, unmonitored social media can be a hazard to our mental and physical health.  

Jeff is your average chemist turned radio host and reporter. He currently hosts middays on WKSU and has reported extensively on science, politics, business, and the environment.