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"Turn It Off" to Help Mental Health focuses on electronic devices

Devices like the one you may be using to read this news release might be harming your health, Texas physicians say, so they have a suggestion: Turn it off.

Physicians are concerned about more people suffering mental and behavioral health problems, especially as the pandemic lags on. Doctors see connections between people’s suffering and overuse of electronic devices, especially among young people who seem addicted to their phones and other screens.

To combat these issues, the Texas Medical Association (TMA) is launching a new initiative, Turn It Off Today, to encourage families to pledge to take a break from electronic devices.

TMA invites Texas families to Turn It Off Today by pledging to take a break from electronic devices.

Electronic devices are addictive. Turn It Off Today calls attention to the direct correlation between excessive screen time and poor emotional and physical well-being. The program aims to reduce the amount of time people – especially children and adolescents – spend staring at their screens and to replace those habits with healthy activities like physical activity, social interaction, reading, and “green time” outdoors.

“The goal of Turn It Off Today is to help families recognize there is a direct correlation between excessive screen time and poor emotional and physical well-being, and to understand electronic devices are addictive,” said Eman Attaya, MD, immediate past chair of the TMA Council on Health Promotion, which recently launched the initiative statewide. Dr. Attaya and her fellow physicians and alliance members at the Lubbock County Medical Society and the Lubbock County Medical Society Alliance created and piloted Turn It Off Today in 2019 for area families to adopt; TMA’s program replicates that.

The program aims to reduce the amount of time people – especially children and adolescents – spend staring at their screens and to replace those habits with healthy activities like physical activity, social interaction, reading, and “green time” (time outdoors).

Children and adolescents spend at least four hours daily on leisure-based screen time (and up to nine hours total screen time per day). The more time people, especially adolescents, spend looking at social media and other activities on their screens, the greater their rates of depression and anxiety, according to multiple studies. Too much screen time also brings developmental delays, sleep deprivation, thoughts of suicide, lack of focus, and obesity. Staring at screens more than an hour each day also is tied to less curiosity, lower self-control, less emotional stability, and greater inability to complete tasks.

To physicians like Dr. Attaya, simply turning devices off is the best solution.

“Mental health issues are predicted to be among the leading causes of illness and death in adolescents, so they are something we should all be seriously concerned about,” said Dr. Attaya. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other pediatric physician specialists recently declared a “national state of emergency” for child and adolescent mental health.

“Yes, the pandemic worsened the crisis; however, there have actually been increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide in youth before the pandemic – over the last 10 years – with suicide now the second leading cause of death among people age 10 to 24,” Dr. Attaya said.

Turn It Off Today features a pact for family members to sign, pledging to limit screen time several ways, for example by switching off phones, computers, tablets, or other devices one hour before bedtime; one day per week for eight weeks; or daily from 6 to 8 pm. Another pledge calls for simply disengaging phone alerts, which draw people’s attention to the device. Screen time refers to using any digital media such as smartphones, computers, tablets, gaming consoles, or television.

Replacing that with more “green time” improves psychological well-being and mental health, and leads to less depression, anxiety, and emotional problems.

“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,” said Dr. Attaya. “Taking a break from technology will improve our overall well-being.”

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