The Pew Research Center has just released a study finding that Americans 60 and older are spending more time in front of their screens than a decade ago. Screen time is up 27 percent.
At first I thought this was totally unsurprising; way more older people are using computers than 10 years ago, when smartphones were just introduced and tablets didn't exist.
Indeed, Pew corroborates this, noting that "in 2000, 14% of those ages 65 and older were internet users; now 73% are. And while smartphone ownership was uncommon at all ages around the turn of the 21st century, now about half (53%) of people 65 and older are smartphone owners." So it seemed to me to be logical that screen time would be up 27 percent, if you were starting from such a small base.
However when you dig into the data, you find that "screen time" isn't just computer time, it also includes TV, videos and movies. Older people watch a LOT of TV; my mother-in-law had it on from morning to night. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people over 65 watch an average of four hours and 14 minutes per day of television, more than any other age group. So the new screen time really is in addition to what they were already doing. It's more time spent in front of more kinds of screens.
It's also at the expense of other activities that people used to do, including reading, socializing (which includes parties, entertainment events, spending time with others.) Exercise — which is so critically important as you get older — is up all of 2 percent.
It's hard to tell exactly what's going on; I wish the data were more granular so you could see screen time broken down in detail. Reading is down 13 percent, but if I'm reading a book with my Kindle app on my iPad, is that reading time or screen time? It's not clear.
The negative effects of too much TV
One thing that is clear is the correlation between watching television and cognitive decline. According to one study, "watching television for more than 3.5 hours per day is associated with a dose-response decline in verbal memory." That study doesn't address the question of other screen time.
However, another study addresses the question of physical decline, and here the situation is going to be the same, whatever kind of screen you are watching.
Participants who watched TV for 5 or more hours every day were 65 percent more likely to have a walking disability 10 years down the line, compared with their counterparts who watched TV for less than 2 hours every day.
Dr. Loretta DiPietro, one of the study authors, tells Medical News Today:
TV viewing is a very potent risk factor for disability in older age … Sitting and watching TV for long periods (especially in the evening) has got to be one of the most dangerous things that older people can do because they are much more susceptible to the damages of physical inactivity.
So older people are spending way more time sitting down and looking at screens, and far less time getting together with friends, having parties or being social, all of which require a bit of walking and moving around.
In a recent MNN article, Angela Nelson listed many of the effects that too much screen time has on kids. "From toddlers to teens, glowing screens can harm their bodies and minds." Problems for kids include obsessive behavior, negative influences and obesity. "The problem isn't just screens themselves, but also the way screens lure kids (and adults) away from something far more important: physical activity." Nelson continues:
And another 2015 study showed that in people of all ages, including teens, heavy internet and phone users are more likely to lose concentration, forget information, have poor spatial awareness and make mistakes — even at times when they're not connected to the internet or using their phones. These "cognitive failures," as the study's author calls them, may include missing appointments, failing to notice signs on the road, daydreaming during conversations and forgetting why they went from one part of the house to another.
Perhaps we should be as worried about the effect of screen time on older people as we are about its effect on kids; being sedentary shortens your life, and according to this MNN post, being lonely "is a strong predictor of premature death, worse mental health, and lower quality of life" The trends that Pew has found are really shocking – older people spending more time on screens, less time with people.
As for me, I'm finishing this post on this beautiful Sunday and turning off all my screens. I'm going to start some serious screen quotas for my non-working hours. I may even ask my wife to join me in a game of cards. I know my obsession with Twitter isn't healthy, but I didn't know it could kill me.