6 ways to have a healthy online life

CBC News Last Updated: Feb. 19, 2014

The average tween or teen consumes nearly 11 hours of media a day, according to research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and scientists are raising concerns about how all that screen time is affecting young people.

That 11-hour average shows how multitasking has become routine for young people. For example, in the 2010 Kaiser study, one hour of watching videos while simultaneously texting would count as two hours of media consumption.

But even without factoring in multitasking, the screen-time numbers young people are racking up are astonishing. Surveys by market researcher Ipsos Mobility last fall show that on school days Canadian teens spend five hours a day just on their smartphones — texting, social networking, gaming, and watching videos.

Scientists worry it's producing distracted kids who have a hard time focusing and thinking deeply or analytically.

Some educators and parents say anxiety is climbing in kids who spend so much time curating multiple online profiles, keeping up with hundreds of digital friends, and picking their way through the sometimes nasty world of social media and online bullying.

But experts say there are ways to counteract some of those effects, and ensure that kids have a healthier online life.

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Get some exercise

There's emerging evidence of skeletal and muscle problems in the neck, thumbs, and backs of heavy texters, gamers and computer users.

All that sedentary time spent in front of screens is producing a less fit generation.

Experts say regular exercise to improve cardiovascular health and increase strength can counteract some of those screen time effects.

And many studies have documented the effectiveness of exercise in reducing depression and anxiety.

Get some face-to-face time

Some adults complain young people have lost social skills as a result of immersing themselves in technology, and due to their preference for texting over talking. Practise eye contact and conversation skills by making time for in-person socializing, which studies show also creates a stronger sense of connectedness ... the human kind!

Get balanced

Like a healthy, balanced diet, a healthy screen life means moderation.

Dr. Michael Rich is professor of pediatrics at Harvard University and head of the Center on Media and Child Heath at Boston's Children Hospital.

He says media technologies aren't going away, but they need to be seen as just one part of a child's day, along with many other activities, such as recreation, school and homework, and time with friends and family.

He says parents shouldn't just limit time with technology; they should encourage kids to make conscious choices about filling their days with a variety of activities.

Get picky

Many of us have embraced technology blindly, succumbing to the seduction of constant distraction and the endless novelty of cute cat videos. Experts say a healthy approach to technology means using it for what it does well, and learning to filter out the "noise."

Stanford University professor emeritus Don Roberts has extensively studied the effects of media on young people. He says parents can help kids become smarter consumers of technology and critical thinkers by talking to them about the content they view and listen to on-line.

Get natural

Researchers say spending time in nature is an antidote to the physical, mental, and emotional stress technology use puts on our bodies and brains.

It increases Vitamin D stores depleted by too much time indoors in front of screens and improves distance vision.

It's been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorders.

Schools that include time outdoors have higher standardized test scores in math, reading and writing.

Get a good book

Various studies show reading engages parts of the brain that involve imagination, creativity and the senses. Regular readers have better verbal and critical thinking skills, and a lower risk of developing dementia.

That's in contrast to electronic media consumption, which is usually a cognitively passive activity.