With more of us than ever before working remotely because of the pandemic, Zoom meetings and virtual training sessions have become part of our daily routines. We see our colleagues two-dimensionally and even socialize with our friends on our screens rather than face to face. With screen time rapidly increasing in our world, what are the effects on our brains? We’re here to provide helpful information with support from Murtaza Syed, MD, board-certified psychiatrist and expert on mental health.
Where’s My Phone?
A study in 2018 showed that American adults spent two-to-four hours per day on their devices, which added up to about 2,600 taps, swipes, touches, and types per day. When the pandemic hit in 2020, those numbers went up exponentially, given the need to replace in-person work and play with virtual alternatives.
The study also indicated that 73 percent of adults experience anxiety, even a mild state of panic, when they can’t find their phones because we’ve become so entwined with our digital lives. Smartphones allow us to carry all our social media addictions with us 24-7, so we always have these connections at our fingertips.
Dr. Syed says, “While smartphones and other devices provide great benefits to our society, including during the pandemic, those benefits also come at a great cost to our mental health. Overuse of devices is connected to increased levels of anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and increased risk of car accidents.”
Dopamine and Social Reward
Dopamine is a brain chemical that is linked to motivation. It’s released when we taste something delicious, have positive social interactions, and after we exercise.
“Dopamine basically rewards us for behaviors that benefit and motivate us to do them again,” says Dr. Syed. “The reward pathways become active when either anticipating or experiencing rewarding events. Every time stimulus-response results in a reward, those associations get cemented in our brains so we want to keep doing them. Whenever we receive a ‘like’ or a kind comment on something we post on social media, we feel a sense of validation that isn’t always healthy.”
Since positive social experiences release dopamine, those experiences are transferred to the virtual world through our devices and social media platforms. Each text message, email, and “like” on Facebook or Instagram becomes a positive social stimulus that prompts us to keep craving more.
Dr. Syed explains, “While all of this may seem harmless on the surface, these cravings for virtual stimuli set us up for screen addictions and take the place of healthier, face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones, time spent outdoors, and doing other things.”
Effects of Too Much Screen Time on Sleep Deprivation
The amount of time you spend on your devices impacts how much sleep you’re getting. “The blue light emitted from your screen interferes with the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone. Using your devices before bedtime makes it more difficult to fall asleep,” explains Dr. Syed. Cutting out unnecessary screen time and refraining from using your devices around bedtime are good solutions for better sleep.
Impaired Social Skills
Even though we’re using our devices largely to socialize, we’re still doing it alone and separate from others. Having fewer real-life interactions leads to less practice, more social anxiety, and loneliness.
Weakened Emotional Judgment
Too much screen time affects your ability to register and process emotions. Desensitization to violent content, for example, is a concerning side effect of weakened emotional judgment. Exposure to violent media content can also increase aggression levels and affect one’s level of empathy.
Strain on Your Eyes and Body
Spending long hours staring at a screen takes a real toll on your body, especially your eyes. “Too much screen time not only strains your eyes and dries them out, but can also lead to stress on the retina and affects visual acuity,” says Dr. Syed. Also, being constantly hunched over to look at our devices impacts your posture and can cause stiffness and pain in your neck and shoulders.
Too much time spent in the virtual world can have a negative impact on how you perceive yourself. The time you lose that could have been spent on forming relationships with others, discovering passions, honing your skills, and experiencing new things leads to a weakened sense of self-identity and confidence.
“We often compare ourselves to others through social media. This does nothing but decreases our own self-worth because what we see others post on social media is far from a reflection of their true character and lifestyle. It’s important to remember that others’ online profiles are a curated snapshot, not a full picture of real life’s imperfections and challenges,” says Dr. Syed.
Healthy Alternatives for a Whole Life
If you think you’re spending too much time in front of your screens beyond what is necessary for work, there are some simple changes you can make to lessen your devices’ hold on you.
Optimizing your environment by keeping your smartphone out of your bedroom, designating the dining table as a screen-free zone, and seeking other activities to relax are easy ways to eliminate temptation and teach yourself healthier avenues to experience life.