Excessive screen time linked to reduced cognitive function: ScienceAlert

Excessive screen time linked to reduced cognitive function: ScienceAlert

Screens have become seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, serving as indispensable tools for work, education, and entertainment. But although it enriches our lives in countless ways, we often fail to consider the potential impact of screen time on our cognitive abilities.

In a new meta-analysis of dozens of previous studies, we found a clear link between disruptive screen use and decreased cognitive performance.

The findings suggest that we should be careful before advocating for more screen time, and before introducing screens into more aspects of daily life.

The time young people spend in front of screens is increasing

In 2020, a report by the Gonski Institute of Education at the University of New South Wales pointed to a worrying statistic: about 84 percent of Australian teachers believe digital technologies are distracting in the learning environment.

According to the ABC, a recent Beyond Blue survey of Australian teachers identified excessive screen time as the second biggest challenge facing young people, after mental health issues.

Despite growing concerns, more than half of Australian schools have adopted a ‘bring your own device’ policy. Students are spending more time online than ever before and are starting at increasingly younger ages. A 2021 report by Common Sense Media estimated that teens spend an average of 5 hours and 33 minutes using screen-based entertainment each day, while tweens and teens devote 8 hours and 39 minutes.

The dramatic increase in screen use has led some individuals, including children, teens, and adults, to develop screen-related addictions. One example of this is gaming disorder, where 2-3% of people meet criteria.

What is “disturbed screen use”?

The impact of screens on our cognitive abilities – that is, our thinking skills such as attention, memory, language and problem solving – has sparked a lot of controversy.

On the one hand, some researchers and reporters claim that screen use can have negative effects, such as health problems, shortened attention spans and stunted development.

On the other hand, schools are increasingly embracing technology to enhance student engagement. Technology companies also market their products as tools that help you improve your problem-solving skills and memory.

Our recent study sought to understand the potential cognitive consequences of “screen-related disordered behaviors.” This is a broad category of problematic behaviors that may include screen dependence, continuing to use a screen even when it is harmful to do so.

We conducted a meta-analysis of 34 studies that explored different forms of screen use (including gaming, Internet browsing, smartphone use, and social media use) and compared the cognitive performance of individuals with disturbed screen use with those without.

Our findings paint a worrying picture.

Differences in cognitive function

Across these rigorously peer-reviewed studies, individuals with screen use disorder have consistently demonstrated significantly lower cognitive performance compared to others.

The cognitive domain most affected was attention, specifically sustained attention, which is the ability to maintain focus on an unchanging stimulus for an extended period.

The second most notable difference was in “executive functioning”—particularly in impulse control, which is the ability to control one’s automatic responses.

Interestingly, the type of screen activity did not make a difference in the results. This trend was not limited to children, but was observed in all age groups.

Two ways to interpret the results

Why do people with screen-related disordered behaviors have poorer cognitive performance?

The first explanation is that disrupted screen use actually leads to poorer cognitive function, including poorer attention skills (but we will need more experimental and longitudinal studies to determine causality).

If this is the case, it may be a result of our constant bombardment with algorithms and features designed to grab our attention. By shifting our focus outward, screen use may impair one’s intrinsic ability to concentrate over time.

Importantly, poor attention also makes it difficult to disengage from addictive behaviors, thus making it more difficult to recognize when screen use becomes problematic.

A second explanation is that people who already have poorer cognitive functioning (e.g., less inhibitory control) are more likely to engage in disruptive screen use.

This may be the result of a plethora of addictive cues designed to keep us glued to our screens. Being bombarded with these things can make it more difficult to pull the brakes when using the screen.

Although the literature does not seem to favor this explanation—and seems to suggest poorer cognitive performance as a result of disruptive screen use—it is still a possibility that we cannot rule out.

Attention is the cornerstone of daily tasks. People with poor attention may have difficulty staying in less stimulating environments, such as a stationary workplace or classroom. They may find themselves turning to the screen as a result.

Likewise, people with less inhibitory control will also find it more difficult to moderate their screen use. This may be what drives them toward problematic screen-related behaviors in the first place.

Who should bear responsibility?

Research suggests that people with poor cognitive performance are usually not well-equipped to control the time they spend in front of screens.

Many users with screen use disorder are young, with males mainly engaging in online gaming, while females mainly engaging in social media use. Neurodiverse people are also at greater risk.

Technology companies are driven by the goal of capturing our attention. For example, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, acknowledged that the company’s strongest competitor is sleep.

At the same time, researchers find themselves struggling to keep up with the pace of technological innovation. A possible path forward is to encourage open-access data policies by technology companies, so that researchers can delve deeper into the study of screen use and its impact on individuals. Conversation

Michelle Muschel, PhD/MA Candidate in Clinical Neuropsychology, Macquarie University; Jennifer Batchelor, Associate Professor, School of Psychological Sciences, Macquarie University; Joan Bennett, Lecturer, Australian Catholic University, and Wayne Warburton, Associate Professor, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *