For many people, video screens have become a central part of daily living.
We spend an awful lot of time staring into the screens on our phones, televisions and computers. Some estimate that the average person spends more than three hours a day looking at a smartphone. And another study reckons the average amount of time daily that we watch TV is close to four hours.
So, even before I started looking into research on what all that screen time does to our brains, I figured it couldn’t be good. The latest studies only confirmed my hunch.
For more than two decades, researchers have investigated the effects of screen time on human brains, and almost every finding is a cause for worry.
For example, in one study cited in the journal Psychology Today, researchers wrote, “internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control.”1
Too Much Screen Time Shrinks Your Brain
More specifically, brain scans have documented excessive screen time causes brain atrophy — brain shrinkage or loss of volume — in gray matter areas where “processing” occurs. Scientists found atrophy in the frontal lobe, which governs executive functions such as planning, prioritizing, organizing and impulse control.2 What’s more, executive functioning ability has been strongly connected to working memory ability.
And on a practical level, executive functioning is linked to activities of daily living, which include getting dressed, the ability to feed oneself, bathe oneself and more.
In addition, scans revealed brain atrophy in the striatum, an area of the brain involved in impulse suppression. But perhaps most concerning, brain scans revealed atrophy in the brain insula, the area of the brain involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and to integrate physical signals with signs of emotion. This is especially concerning in children whose brains are still developing.
In short, excessive screen-time appears to negatively impact brain structure and cognitive function.
Children with Most Screen Time have Worst Memory Test Scores
In one of the largest studies to date — called the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD) — researchers surveyed more than 4,500 kids and their parents with questions about recreational screen time, exercise and sleep and then explored the effects by testing the kids’ memory and learning abilities.
Kids who spent more time staring at screens performed worse on memory, language and thinking tests than those who spent less time in front of a device.
Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. wrote an article on the topic and reported that she observes “sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyperaroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome,” in many young patients.
While much of the research has been done in the developing brains of children, teenagers and young adults, the scientists believe that the same negative effects are happening in adults as well.
36 Percent of Adults Admit to Too Much Screen Time
While adult brains aren’t developing at the same rate as children’s brains, screen time can be harmful.
With 36 percent of adults surveyed in a Pew Research Center study admitting to spending too much time on their devices, added to the fact that scientists have documented new evidence for the adaptability of the adult brain–a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity– there’s more reason to believe than ever before that our screen habits could be having a profound effect on our cognition and behavior.3
Social, Mental and Behavioral Consequences
In fact, a six-year study at Brigham Young University demonstrates that about one of every ten people who play video games can become addicted – leading to social, mental and behavioral issues.
Plus, the researchers found that a pathological video addiction can lead to a higher level of anxiety, depression and aggression. The study shows that men are more susceptible to this addiction than women.4 (And, by the way, if you do enjoy video games, and are not addicted, a study at McGill University in Canada shows that you can improve your gaming performance by engaging in more physical exercise and getting into better athletic shape.)5
Now, on top of all this, there’s the brain effects of a developing video technology many folks are excited about – virtual reality (VR).
In case you’re not that familiar with it, VR often consists of wearing a headset that shows you 3-D images designed to make you feel like you have been transported to another place. You’re cut off from where you really are and experience an intense feeling of being taken to another setting.
In the opinion of some educators, VR potentially offers a new tool for teaching. If you want students to learn about the Grand Canyon, with VR they can feel like they are actually there. Want to teach students about the International Space Station? They can experience a VR trip to the station.
But a study of how VR video affects memory is throwing some cold water on these hopes.
Virtual Reality Damages Learning and Memory
The research demonstrates that if you “learn” a topic using VR your memory of it can be impaired and relatively unreliable – for reasons that are not yet fully understood. And the tests show that “active” VR – when you control your movements through the VD landscape – is worse than “passive” VR, which is more like watching a movie and which takes you various places without your active participation.6
The researchers believe that the intensive sense of realism and immersion in a unique environment may “tire” the brain and get in the way of creating visual memories. And they hope that if they can understand this memory problem it may lead to a better form of VR that is a dependable learning experience.
The simple answer to problems like these is to frequently shut off all of your devices and spend more time IRL (In Real Life). You’ll be healthier, happier and less liable to suffer from memory loss and depression. Oh, and your cancer risk will go down, too! Research shows that too much TV time also boosts your risk for colorectal cancer.7
- Dong, Guangheng, Elise E Devito, Xiaoxia Du, and Zhuoya Cui. “Impaired Inhibitory Control in ‘Internet Addiction Disorder’: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study.” Psychiatry Research 203, no. 2–3 (September 2012): 153–158. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2012.02.001.