Screens and the Human Brain

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The devices are ubiquitous, and even our fridges have become “smart” with a glowing blue screen, graphics, and stimuli for our brains.  Toddlers are app proficient before they are potty trained, and even grandma has a Facebook.  What does all of this technology mean for our brains – and is it harmful?  The emergence of smart technology is relatively new, and is a landscape that is ever changing.  20 years ago, the concept of being accessible 24/7 meant a Blackberry, pager, or flip phone, and now we have the entirety of the internet in our pockets.  While there are many benefits to technology – particularly when using it for productivity, time management, and in general connected-ness, growing controversy and concerns about the negative side of technology has pushed this conversation to the forefront.

In the most recent version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), now in it’s 5th edition, video game and technology use was suggested as “topics for future study.”  The DSM-5 is the source of diagnosis and criteria for mental health professionals, and this new edition was met with confusion and controversy.  To add to this confusion, very recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) which is the international source for all medical diagnosis and aligns with the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases, 11th edition), suggested that there is such a thing as gaming disorder.  The criteria for this disorder is vague, though discusses concerns for those who use video games and technology to the exclusion of other daily living activities.

The impact that technology has on us is not limited to just video games.  Most apps, including social media, include a concept of gamification to keep users engaged.  Advertisers, and thus the financial benefit of technology, is reliant on us continuing to use and consume the media, and so apps have grown increasingly savvy with notifications, incentives, and content that keeps users engaged.  When adults have been asked to give up their devices, even when they know it is temporary, they demonstrate physical symptoms, including anxiety, increased heart rate, blood pressure changes, and a feeling of “loss” of self – as if the device was an extension of oneself.  There are also growing concerns that there is a correlation between the increase in use of smart devices in adolescents and the sharp rise of suicidality and depression.

Technology impact is even greater when we examine growing, developing brains.  According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, excessive screen time is linked to learning disorders, difficulties regulating emotions and behaviors, and increased problem behaviors in school and at home.  The recommendations of screen time include zero screens under the age of two, and limited to two hours of screen time total per day for children over the age of two.  As you think about your day, you realize what the AAP also realized – that most children, regardless of age, spend seven hours or more per day around screens.  Increasingly schools are using technology to keep kids engaged, apps are marketed as being educational, and screens literally are everywhere – even in our cars.

So knowing the risks of screen time, and also knowing that we live in a technologically advanced society reliant on screens, how can we strike balance for ourselves and our loved ones?  Earlier this year, Therapy Hive hosted a screening of the film Screenagers, and opened up a discussion about technology, developing brains, and balance.  The Screenagers website has many resources including technology use contracts for tweens and teens, and guidelines for parents about setting limits and increasing awareness and communication about technology.  For ourselves, and our kids, helping to set limits on the use of technology can also help.  Having “no phone zones” such as the family dinner table, or a teenagers bed.  Helping to set and establish limits such as no use of screens one hour before bed, which can help with sleep.  Taking walks and immersing yourself in nature – leaving the selfie stick at home.  Technology is here, and it is our responsibility to use it healthily.  If this is an area that we can help with, visit our providers at TherapyHive.com

 

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