University of Auckland lecturer suggests how to lessen technology dependency before health suffers.

Bring back conversation and interact more with people than screens, says a university lecturer worried too many New Zealanders are "technology-dependent rather than technology-enriched".

Bodo Lang, senior lecturer and deputy head of the marketing department at the University of Auckland Business School, says many people around the world have become overly dependent on their screens.

The depth of that dependency was revealed in 2010, he says, when Apple supremo Steve Jobs let the iPad loose on the world in 2010, heralding it as "phenomenal, an incredible experience." A year later, Jobs told the New York Times his children had never used one because he limited how much technology they used at home.

Lang says many New Zealanders would do well to take note. Research commissioned by Specsavers in February suggested almost one in five New Zealand children spend the equivalent of a full time job (up to 35 hours) per week watching screens.

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Technology addiction is well-documented but Lang says few people realise it may actually affect their health and that of their children.

The screen - be it television, smartphone, tablet, video game or desktop - is so intrinsically part of our daily lives that we often don't realise its effects, he says.

"Smartphones, social media like YouTube and social networks like Facebook are powerful tools, connecting us with each other and providing unprecedented access to information and entertainment. But such technologies bring risks."

Heavy users of Facebook have been shown to be at greater risk of feeling lonely and socially isolated compared to light users, Lang says.

"Greater use of social networking sites has been shown to be associated with depression.

Such trends are likely to escalate because an increasing number of consumers are becoming addicted to social media, social networking and their smartphones."

There is growing concern screen time may cause other health problems - like the link between child obesity and too much television-watching.

Internationally respected British psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, author of Managing Screen Time and Screen Dependency and several other papers on the subject, said earlier this year: "...whether it's Facebook, the internet or computer games, screen time is no longer merely a cultural issue about how children spend their leisure time, nor is it confined to concern over the educational value or inappropriate content - it's a medical issue".

Bodo Lang, senior lecturer and deputy head of the marketing department at the University of Auckland Business School. Photo / Supplied.
Bodo Lang, senior lecturer and deputy head of the marketing department at the University of Auckland Business School. Photo / Supplied.

lets - estimated that, by the age of 10, children had access to an average of five screens in their lives. That number, Sigman says, has almost certainly risen since.

As well as the family TV, many young children have a bedroom TV, plus portable computer game consoles, smartphone, family computer and a laptop or a tablet computer.

By the age of seven, the average child will have spent a full year of 24-hour days watching recreational screen media. More screens mean more consumption and more medical problems, Sigman says in an article published in the UK's Tech Advisor magazine, published by IDG, which bills itself as the world's biggest technology research group.

Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease have been linked to too much screen time. So have significant changes in brain chemistry caused by dopamine, the so-called pleasure chemical and a key influence in addictions ranging from sugar to cocaine. In fact, Dr Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, has called screens "electronic cocaine".

"There are concerns among neuroscientists that this dopamine being produced every single day for many years - through playing computer games, for example - may change the reward circuitry in a child's brain and make them more dependent on screen media," says Sigman.

Educational achievement may also be at risk - 2015 Cambridge University research recorded the activities of more than 800 14-year-olds (who averaged four hours a day on screens) and analysed their GCSE results at 16. Those spending an average of five hours a day on screens (TV, computer, games console, phone) saw a fall in GCSE results equivalent to two grades overall. Six hours was associated with 18 fewer points - or dropping a grade in four subjects.

"So what do we do?" says Lang. "Maybe the Steve Jobs approach is a little extreme - but we certainly need to communicate and showcase that people who are present take priority over technology.

"Simple acts, like dinner time conversations without technology, build a sense of self-esteem and belonging amongst family members.

"Make technology accessible only where the family can see it, rather than having a TV, a smart phone and a games console in bedrooms.

"Screen time, whether for adults or for younger people should be limited. Regular sessions of many hours of screen time are likely to lead to many negative consequences, not just for the user but those around them as well.

"So the next time you are fiddling with your phone, reaching for the remote, or pushing the 'on' button on some device, remember: watch that screen...By that, I mean watch out for it."