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There's an Upside to Being on Screens All the Damn Time

Photograph by Twenty20

Parents hear tons of warnings about the potential pitfalls of too much technology in the home, but it turns out there's a huge upside. A new study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, shows that tech devices like iPads and smartphones can actually improve child health outcomes.

Of course, no one is calling for unfettered access to screens. Instead, it's how parents use the devices that are making the biggest positive difference.

The study, co-authored by Christopher Cushing, assistant professor of clinical child psychology at the University of Kansas, analyzed results of mobile health interventions to determine statistical evidence of changes in health behavior or disease control in subjects younger than 18 years old.

“The take-home message is that a smartphone can help a child be healthier across a number of health care behaviors, like making sure they get vaccines or eat a healthy diet,” Cushing said in a press release.

Cushing’s collaborators include lead author David Fedele as well as Alyssa Fritz and Adrian Ortega of the University of Florida, and Christina Amaro of KU’s Clinical Child Psychology Program.

According to lead author David Fedele, findings indicate that health care providers should encourage mobile health technology for their patients.

“Findings from the current study indicate that mHealth interventions are a promising and potentially effective route for pediatric health care providers to use with patients and their family members,” he said.

Given the widespread use of mobile technology among families and youth, use of smartphone technology to track health habits and promote healthy choices seems logical. Whether it’s as simple as a text from mom or dad to remember to take a vitamin or an app that helps kids get enough greens into their diets, using the tools parents already have in their home can empower kids to take control of making healthy choices.

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As always, parents should be involved in the use of technology by their children, even when it comes to promoting healthy habits. By engaging with their kids, they model healthy self-care and things like good eating habits and exercise plans.

Cushing suggests that parents use technology that is appropriate given age and stage of development. While a younger child is more likely to use an app with parents, a tween or teen might seek more autonomy. Either way, it’s important for parents to remain engaged.

“If they have a young child, they could opt into a scheduling program that would allow them to see those things that are due for the child like a vaccination,” he said. “For an older child, it’s appropriate for the child to take on some autonomy such as engaging with an app where they can set goals and get feedback. But the parent should be engaged in that system so they can use teachable moments. If a child isn’t sure about why they’re not meeting goals, a parent can use adult problem-solving to help find an answer.”

The bottom line is that families are already using mobile technology for a variety of reasons, and adding mobile health apps to the mix can serve as a healthy use of technology. From tracking daily steps, nutrition and sleep habits to scheduling appointments and tracking important health data, mobile health technology can help families achieve their health and wellness goals together.

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While the body of research on this topic is small, these findings suggest that use of mobile technology health apps can be a practical tool for improving health among children, teens and families.

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