More Evidence for Less Screen Time

April 4th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Why electronic access might actually interfere with your biological ability to connect one-to-one.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

In a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Barbara L. Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asked if readers could remember the last time they were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around them were “thumbing a connection to somewhere else.” 

I’ll admit to being somewhat judgmental of this practice on the grounds that it’s rude. When I’m out with someone, I’ll turn off the ringer on my phone (unless a babysitter might need to call in an emergency); I don’t text; and you won’t catch me interrupting a conversation to tweet something. But I came away from Fredrickson’s piece chastened – because the same can’t be said for my time alone with my child. If it’s dinnertime, I might be answering an email on my iPhone while I mindlessly tell her to eat her beans. Rude? Maybe, but worse, according to Fredrickson, I could be leaving “life limiting fingerprints” on her gene expression and stunting both our ability to connect. 

In a study to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, Fredrickson and her research team conducted an experiment on the effects of learning skills for cultivating interpersonal relationships. Half the participants attended a six-week workshop on an ancient practice known as “metta,” that teaches people to develop more warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others. Not only did they feel more upbeat and socially connected, they also altered their vagal tone – a part of the cardiovascular system that was assumed to be stable until relatively recently.

Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve, Fredrickson explains. Variations in your heart rate reveal the strength of your brain-heart connection – the higher your vagal tone the better. And, she explains, the vagal tone is also central to facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. In increasing people’s vagal tone, their capacity for friendship, connection and empathy is increased. 

But, she warns, “Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of ‘use it or lose it.’ If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.”
Social genomics work shows that people’s histories of social connection or loneliness alters how their genes are expressed within the cells of their immune system. “New parents may need to worry less about genetic testing and more about how their own actions – like texting while breast-feeding or otherwise paying more attention to their phone than their child – leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.” 

Following this study, I for one am more aware of my use of devices, and am stepping away from screens when I spend valuable time with my child. Are you contemplating making this a rule at your house, or do you think Fredrickson’s study lacks merit? Weigh in.