How Screens Are Altering the Landscape of the Brain

Today the average person consumes five times the visual content of people living 50 years ago.1

Scientists say we are deep into the Information Age.2 And while researchers have only just begun to explore the effects of screens on the brain and body, current findings are shocking.

A Nielsen report, for instance, claims that adults in the United States log 11 hours of daily digital media consumption.3 This includes time spent scrolling through smartphones, tablets, computers, and other devices. The same Nielsen report states that young adults aged 18-34 spend 43% of their time on digital platforms. Data shows that even children as young as 8, or less, spend an average of two hours a day in front of screens—an amount that has tripled in four years.4

Regardless of the specifics, we need to be mindful of all the hours we spend staring at screens, particularly in younger users. As reports indicate, tech leaders such as Bill Gates, Mark Cuban, and Steve Jobs limited their own kids’ screen time,5 we, too, must examine the implications of digital overstimulation in children and youth. This begs an integral question: As society becomes increasingly dependent on electronic devices, will this affect or change our brains? If so, how? 

The effects of screens on younger brains

Babies, children, adolescents, and even young adults are especially susceptible to the neurological implications of their electronic devices.6

Take the interim findings from a $300 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that is still ongoing.6 These findings were featured in a recent 60 Minutes report, which detailed researchers following 11,000 children across the country to determine how screens and screen time impacts brain development and influences the mental health of young people.7

During the study, 4,500 participants were instructed to lie down in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine while a screen displayed images from their Instagram accounts. The machine would scan their brains for certain responses, including a spike in dopamine—the chemical linked to motivation, pleasure, and reward.6

Here are some of the study’s neurological findings: 6

  • Researchers identified significant changes in brain development among youth who spent more than seven hours using screens each day.
  • Participants who spent more than two hours per day using screens experienced lower performance scores on language and thinking assessments.
  • Longer-term outcomes will be published in the coming years, as researchers continue to examine the effects of screen time and review additional data points from the study.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis—lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for screen time—explains that infants are even more susceptible to the implications of screen addiction than adolescents.7 Very young children experience the same dopamine rush as their older counterparts, but they aren’t yet equipped to transfer what they learn virtually, to the real world.7

He explains that 18- to 24-month-olds are at a critical period in their brain development, and they struggle applying two-dimensional tasks (i.e., building digital blocks on a tablet) to three-dimensional situations (i.e., building with actual wooden blocks).7 This means they face all the risks of screen addiction without the benefits.

Accordingly, Dr. Christakis recommends that with the exception of video chatting, parents avoid exposing infants under 2 years old to any form of digital media.7

But regardless of age, one thing is certain: Too much screen time can impair young people’s brain development.8 The frontal lobe in particular undergoes extensive changes from puberty through our mid-20s, and it plays a significant role in the following:8

  • Self-confidence
  • Academic and career performance
  • Emotional regulation
  • Capacity for learning
  • Ability to connect with others

To protect the development of these areas, it’s important to monitor the screen time of youth of all ages closely.

The effects of screens on adult brains

While adults in their mid-20s and older enjoy the benefit of fully developed brains, spending hours scrolling through one’s smartphone can still cause damage.

Logging hours upon hours of screen time each day may result in:8

  • Difficulty sleeping: Research indicates that heavy computer and smartphone use can disrupt our ability to sleep. This is because the blue light our devices emit hinders our ability to produce melatonin, the sleep-promoting hormone.
  • Shifts in the brain’s reward center: Video games and social media in particular can be highly addictive and cause the same dopamine rush associated with drugs and gambling. This can alter the brain’s reward system in the long term.
  • Vision problems and headaches: Spending too much time staring at screens may cause dry eyes, headaches, and blurred vision. In addition to their physical drawbacks, these symptoms may also compromise our cognitive performance.

Looking to prevent the drawbacks of screen addiction? Instead of reaching for your device, make a point of exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and unplugging on a regular basis.

What are the neurological changes linked to too much screen time?

Our dependence on electronic devices shapes numerous parts of our lives, including our physical wellbeing, social health, and capacity for learning.9

Specifically, too much screen time can cause changes to the landscape of the brain. These changes include:8

  • Gray matter atrophy: Several studies have shown that the gray matter areas of the brain, which oversee processing and include the frontal lobe, lose tissue volume when continually exposed to screens.
  • Loss of white matter integrity: White matter connects the different lobes within each brain hemisphere, the left and right hemispheres, and the pathways between the higher and lower brain centers. It also regulates the networks between the brain and the body, so spending too much time with your devices may lead to internal communication problems.
  • Cognitive functioning issues: Reduced cortical thickness is also linked to our dependence on screens. This can damage the brain’s information-processing and impulse-management centers, heighten our sensitivity to rewards, and hurt our cognitive performance.

To lower your risk of facing these neurological changes, there’s a simple solution: Limit your screen time each day. There’s no need to get rid of your devices entirely—they can be beneficial, and researchers are still exploring the specific effects they have on our brain health—but that makes it all the more important to take charge of the way you spend your time. Simply be aware of how many hours you and your loved ones spend on your devices each day.

For more information on cognitive function and brain health, please visit the Metagenics blog.

References:

  1. Fisher N. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolefisher/2019/01/24/how-much-time-americans-spend-in-front-of-screens-will-terrify-you/#529d90771c67. Accessed March 25, 2019.
  2. http://www.ushistory.org/us/60d.asp. Accessed March 28, 2019.
  3. Nielsen staff. Nielsen. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/time-flies-us-adults-now-spend-nearly-half-a-day-interacting-with-media.html. Accessed March 26, 2019.
  4. The Common Sense Census. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/research/csm_zerotoeight_fullreport_release_2.pdf. Accessed March 28, 2019.
  5. Berger S. CNBC – Make It. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/05/how-bill-gates-mark-cuban-and-others-limit-their-kids-tech-use.html. Accessed March 26, 2019.
  6. Shoot B. Fortune. http://fortune.com/2018/12/11/nih-kids-screen-time-study-2018-brain-development/. Accessed March 25, 2019.
  7. Cooper A. CBS News – 60 Minutes. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/groundbreaking-study-examines-effects-of-screen-time-on-kids-60-minutes/. Accessed March 25, 2019.
  8. Dunckley V. Psychology Today.https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain. Accessed March 26, 2019.
  9. Pandika M. Rally Health. https://www.rallyhealth.com/health/unexpected-effects-screen-time. Accessed March 26, 2019.

Submitted by Metagenics Marketing Team

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