As both a physiotherapist and a parent of three, I get asked a lot of questions by clients and friends not just about their own health but the health of their children as well.
Every generation features something new that worries the one that came before. With my kids, it’s smartphones and tablets, the now ubiquitous devices that have become more essential than anyone could have guessed. It’s clear they’re a fixture of modern life and equally clear to any parent just how captivating they are for children.
When the life of your children features something that your childhood didn’t, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about how damaging it is. Nostalgia can make us view our childhoods a little more fondly than they likely deserve. That said, I do think there are harmful side effects to the use of smartphones and tablets – but maybe not what you expect.
A huge amount of the health problems adults face are a result of desk jobs. When these same adults see their children tethered to a screen, instinct tells them this will lead to the same string of postural problems, aches and pains.
Children are highly adaptive. Their still-growing bodies are shaped by their activities (or lack of), so this next generation of digital natives will have bodies more used to the desk-bound demands of today. Adults with all their aches and pains likely had far more active childhoods, and as a result their bodies weren’t prepared for being thrown into the deep end of digital work.
Because of the toll their desk jobs take of them, people expect that I see a lot of children with neck pain because of all their time spent on computers and tablets, but I don’t. And going forward, I won’t be surprised at all if these kids grow up to have far less back and neck pain than we do because they adapted to digital life from a young age.
In fact, there are some physical benefits to their use of smart devices. As opposed to watching TV – the scourge of the prior generation of lazy kids – phones, tablets and laptops allow children to move about more. You’ll notice them switch from lying on their back, to their belly, to sitting up and so on.
What they’re doing here is remaining in a position until it’s uncomfortable and then moving to a new one. This is much better than being fixed in front of a TV or stuck in a desk chair for hours on end. As I always say, short periods spent in “bad” postures are usually better than long periods in one “good” one.
Unfortunately, that’s pretty much where the good news ends.
By having constant access to the internet, children are far less inclined to be active. Their entertainment, education and communication can all be done through a single device without moving at all. Combine this lack of activity with the prevalence of sugary food and drink in the market and it’s no wonder that childhood obesity is rising.
However, it’s not the device itself that’s the issue, it’s that the low-effort-high-reward experience found on it is so much more compelling to children than anything else. They don’t have the discipline not to simply follow whatever provides the most pleasure, so parents must limit time spent online and encourage physical activity, whether it’s in their education, their play or their social life.
When a child – or an adult – is online, they’re bombarded by apps, social networks and games deliberately designed with a stream of little rewards (likes, retweets, coins, gems, etc.) that trigger a pleasure response in the brain, a little burst of a chemical called dopamine, that they seek again and again. It’s the same chemical that is associated with problems of addiction. This gamification is absolutely everywhere and it makes serious money, with the side effect of millions of pleasure-addled and addicted brains.
Smart devices are fantastic tools, that’s why we all use them so much. But they become dangerous if they replace all other activity. It’s crucial that a child learns to love physical activity during their habit-forming years, because a child that doesn’t enjoy exercise will grow up into an adult that doesn’t.
And that adult ends up having to see me.
Clinical Director, West London Physiotherapy