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Posted on Fri, Dec 16, 2011 : 5 a.m.

Too much 'screen time' can become unhealthy habit

By Ask Dr. K


I'm starting to think I have an unhealthy addiction to electronic media. I spend a lot of time on social networking sites, on the Internet, playing video games and watching TV. Basically, I think I spend too much time staring at various screens. How bad is this for me?


We all have habits that we'd be better off without. Sometimes they creep up on us before we notice. If your various types of "screen time" are taking over your life, it's time to take stock. Wanting to change is the necessary first step.

There's a big difference between dealing with a minor unhealthy habit and an addiction. You can fix the former yourself. The latter calls for more serious intervention, additional support and professional help.

In my opinion, trolling the Internet night after night is a slightly unhealthy habit. So is watching hours and hours of TV, and spending more time on social media than in person with friends and family. I know there are people who will disagree with me. Call me old-fashioned.

Why do I believe these behaviors are unhealthy? In extreme cases, they appear to alter brain function in a way that's similar to drug addiction. One Korean study looked at people who played computer games for more than 30 hours a week. These people reported that they couldn't cut back on playing even though they wanted to.

When the addicted subjects were placed in an MRI machine and reminded of the game, their brains reacted similarly to the brains of drug addicts who are shown something reminding them of their drug. None of this evidence proves that you can really be addicted to electronic media, but it suggests that it's possible.

Here are three tips for cutting back on minor but unhealthy habits: (1) Find a healthier alternative. Call a friend or family member to connect if you're feeling lonely, instead of spending hours on the Internet.

(2) Set your sights on reducing your habit by half each day or week. After you've succeeded at this, try going without. Skip your habit entirely one day a week. Then try two days (or more).

(3) Practice saying no. Watch out for peer pressure, good-natured or not. Let friends and family know in advance that you're trying to cut back and ask them for their support.

I have a patient who became overwhelmed by his Facebook page and barrage of tweets from Twitter. He decided to take a month off and just disappeared from the social networks. When he tuned back in a month later, he found some angry notes from buddies. He thought about it a while. Then he decided to take a middle-ground position: He didn't stay completely offline, but he greatly scaled back the number of messages he initiated or responded to. Last I heard, his friends were still giving him a hard time, but he was OK with that.

Ultimately, nipping an unhealthy habit in the bud can help you improve your health, save money and reconnect with people and activities you enjoy.

(Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information:

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