Doctor blames phone usage, but Gen Alpha patient had rare tumor

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 28, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Stereotyped as "iPad kids," Gen Alpha's screen time habits are often blamed for their health issues. However, this assumption can lead to misdiagnoses, as seen when a UK doctor overlooked a rare brain tumor, attributing the symptoms to excessive phone use.

  • When treating younger patients or patients who report high levels of screen time, doctors should assess the conditions both they and their patients are concerned about and not downplay health fears.

Stereotyped by some social media users as “iPad kids,” Generation Alpha has a bad reputation for its screen time. Born between 2010 and 2024, Gen Alpha kids didn’t develop their habits unassisted. Gen Alpha is the first generation of which all members have grown up with an abundance of technology and social media.

Screen time has several implications for people’s health. Studies have drawn connections between increased screen time and mental health conditions including depression and anxiety, as well as physical health issues like obesity.[]

Screen time may also have implications for making medical diagnoses. Some doctors may feel compelled to attribute a young patient’s symptoms to screen time without taking the time to assess their health through appropriate questions and tests. While screen time can be an explanation for some symptoms, it is not the only explanation, nor is it an explanation for all symptoms. Hasty and potentially incorrect diagnoses based on screen time can, depending on the real underlying issue at hand, be deadly.

According to the Daily Mail, doctors in the United Kingdom overlooked a rare brain tumor in a Gen Alpha patient because they attributed his symptoms to migraines, which they suggested were a result of excessive phone usage.[]

In order to avoid misdiagnosing young patients—and downplaying severe health issues—it is important for doctors to conduct thorough examinations and actively listen to patients’ concerns. To make sure you are not leaving anything out, Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, recommends evaluating patients for the condition(s) you feel most worried about—and any fears they might bring up. 

“What I tell patients is ‘Whatever you're worried about, I'm going to make go away,’ and, ‘Whatever I'm worried about, I'm going to make go away,” Dr. Segil says.

It is also important to dig deep and explore both obvious and “sneaky” explanations for patients’ symptoms, Dr. Segil adds. For example, while something like screen time—or anxiety—may seem like an obvious explanation for some symptoms, a sneakier diagnosis could be hiding under the surface. And, he warns, if you diagnose a patient with one thing, it doesn’t necessarily cancel out the other.

“The horrible truth about medicine is you're allowed to have two things at once,” Dr. Segil says. “You're allowed to be anxious and have a brain tumor. You're allowed to be anxious and have a migraine headache.”

What younger patients are worried about, Dr. Segil says, tends to be more extreme, out-of-the-box diseases than doctors might suspect themselves. He adds that this may be due to a rise in direct-to-consumer marketing from pharmaceutical companies, health forums on sites like Reddit, or people being influenced by trending health influencers on TikTok and Instagram. 

That being said, it is important for doctors to remember that screen time does more than put patients at risk of developing physical and mental health symptoms; it also gives them an outlet for looking up symptoms. 

While some of these concerns may sound outrageous to a medical professional, it is crucial to treat patients and their fears with respect. Conducting a thorough exam and/or conversation with the patient can help you rule out—or consider—some diagnoses and can give them assurance that you respect them and their health concerns.

“As a physician, I always encourage people to go looking on the internet and look for other diagnoses,” Dr. Segil says, noting that some doctors discourage this. “People are going to have more access to Reddit, Google, and AI, and it's smarter to embrace that this generation is going to come in having done research on the internet than to ignore it.”

What this means for you

Screen time can have negative health implications, perhaps especially for members of the technology saturated Generation Alpha. However, doctors should remember that screen time is not the only explanation for a patient's symptoms and evaluate patients for a variety of potential conditions before making a diagnosis.

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