By: Joelle Renstrom, Boston University

The Environmental Protection Agency first warned ofsecondhand smokein1991, some30 yearsafter scientists determined that smoking cigarettes cause cancer. Today, agrowing body of researchpoints toward a new indirect health hazard.

Just as frequently being around other people while they smokecan cause cancer, heart disease, lung disease,and other ailments, what I call “secondhand screen time” could beendangering children.

By not limiting their own phone use, parents and other caregivers may be unwittingly setting kids up to be addicted to screens.

An addiction

A decade ago, the unwillingness – or perhaps the inability – of the college students in mywriting classesto stay off their phones for 50 minutes at a stretch catalyzedmy interestin screen use. And my students have only grown more unwilling to put down their phones, a trend that has also gotten worseoutside of my classroom.

Curious about my students’ phone use, I began researching screen addiction and conducting my own surveys. Roughly20% of my studentshave used the word “addiction” when describing their phone habits, and many more have expressed misgivings about their phone use.

While I encourage them to examine their habits, I blame students less for their tech addiction than I did a decade ago. They’ve learned this behavior from adults – in many cases since the moment they were born.

Checking Twitter in front of kids is not the same as blowing smoke in their faces. Smartphones and cigarettes do, however, have some things in common. Both areaddictiveand both became wildly popular before researchers learned about their addictive properties and health dangers.

On average, American adults touch their phonesover 2,500 timesa day. According to theAmerican Psychiatric Association, that fits the definition of addiction: “a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.” While researchers continue to study the effects and extent of phone use, thescientific consensusis that phone addiction is real.

Desiring objects

What’s a parent to do while nursing or when an infant falls asleep on one’s chest?

Perhaps they’ll read the news, check email, text friends or scan social media parenting groups. A phone or tablet can be a portal to the rest of the world – after all, caring for small children can be isolating.

But kids, evenbabies, notice these habits. They see parents reach again and again for a seemingly magical object that glints and flashes, makes sounds and shows moving images.

Who wouldn’t want such a wonderful plaything? Trouble is, if the desire for a phone builds in infancy, it can become second nature.

Troubling research

Some researchers have already found links between excessive screen time, particularly phone use, andattention deficits,behavioral issues,sleep problems,impaired social skills,loneliness,anxiety,anddepression.

Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Israel’s Educational Neuroimaging Center recently published a study inJAMA Pediatricsthat focused on cognitive-behavioral risks of exposing preschool-aged kids to screen-based media. That includes video games, TV, websites and apps. Phones are particularly problematic, the study found, because they provide mobile access to all of this media. They found that screen exposure impedes the formation of nerve systems involved in language development, expression, and reading skills.

These findings point to yet another consequence of excessive screen time, especially for younger kids. Since96%of Americans have phones, many babies are exposed to screens soon after they’re born and the stakes of such exposure are becoming better understood.

To be sure, it’s hard if not impossible to assess how much time Americans are spending looking at screens given the countless different ways that people use their devices. And because not all screen time is equally good or bad for you, someexperts are callingfor a “Human Screenome Project” to assess what we’re doing on our screens and to figure out what the consequences might be.

Developing brains

Whenyounger kidsare exposed toharmful, habit-forming behaviors, such as smoking cigarettes orgambling, they’re more likely to becomeaddictedto those same substances or behaviors. Exposure to secondhand smoke itself also can make kidsprone to cigarette addiction.

While scientists don’t yet know for sure if that happens to kids who observe their parents’ phone use, there’s ample evidence thatkids learn from and mimic their parents’ behaviors. If children see their parents do something they’re not allowed to do, that behavior doesn’t seem bad or wrong, and they may desire the “forbidden fruit” all the more.

My mom, a lifelong smoker, had her first cigarette when she was 12. After dinner one night, her parents, both of whom smoked multiple packs of unfiltered cigarettes each day, lit up and her dad handed her the pack. This was in the 1950s before people knew the effects of smoking.

When she took a drag, instead of coughing, she felt like she’d “died and gone to heaven.” My mom’s parents smoked so often in front of her that she both wanted to do it and knew exactly how.

When I see toddlers navigate smartphones as though they were born using them, this story springs to mind.

I’ve seen parents hand over iPhones to 2-year-olds to placate them in restaurants, just as mine sometimes plopped me down in front of the TV to keep me occupied. The difference is that I couldn’t bring the TV to the dinner table, or anywhere else.

John Hutton, a pediatrician who researches the effects of phone use,has found thatroughly 90% of U.S. babies are exposed to screen time before their first birthday and that it’s not uncommon for 2- or 3-month-olds to watch phones.

Addiction to mobile devices is widespread.Jiangang Wang/Getty Images

Breaking old habits

The human brain continues developing until we’reroughly 25 years old, so teenage behavior can have a significant and lasting impact. Research indicates that theadolescent brainisparticularly proneto risk-taking, peer-seeking and lack of impulse control.

Between that and a lifetime of fetishizing screens, is it any wonder that so many teenagerswon’t put their phones down?

My college students describe the disconcerting and disappointing quiet that sets in when they’re at a table in the dining hall or in someone’s dorm room and everyone’s deep into a phone. Phones facilitate an incalculable amount ofimportant interactionsfor them, especially with friends and family back home.

But by the time they’re in college, they can recognize and articulate at least some of what they’re missing when they spend so much time staring at screens. They can assess their own habits and implement some changes if they so choose, but it makes sense that they, having been raised with this techno-magic, would never think of giving it up.

A 2-month-old or a 2-year-old, however,can’t do that. Since the frontal cortex of anadolescent brain is still developing, teenagers aren’t fully able to reason or control impulses.

Perhaps, most adults can’t either. But since it’s up to today’s adults to shape younger generations, we should be aware of the secondhand effects of our own behavior.


David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...