Today, we spend 90% of our free time on a device. But not all screen time is created equal. We can use our screens to better ourselves and do things that support brain health development. On the other hand, mindless scrolling on our digital devices can lead to poor effects on the brain after prolonged screen time. Here’s why optimizing screen time is key for your digital wellness.

Addictive reward systems

For social media users and gamers, these apps begin to function similar to slot machines, according to a Harvard article. In America, slot machines make more than movie theaters, theme parks and major league baseball combined. Why is this? They work on what’s called a variable reward system. Social media also activates the brain’s reward system, the same part that turns slot machines into an addiction. 

“It balances the hope that you’re going to make it big with a little bit of frustration, and unlike the slot machine, a sense of skill needed to improve,” said Pediatrician Michael Rich. You aren’t getting rewarded every time, but enough to keep you addicted to refreshing your notifications. This effect begins in children, and amplifies as teens pick up social media habits. It can then continue through adulthood. 

Sleep disruption and screen time

According to research, the blue light emitted by our devices suppresses the production of melatonin in our body, when we use screens before bedtime. Less melatonin means difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep, as melatonin is necessary for regular sleep patterns.

It can also pose a distraction to keep you awake during hours you know you should be sleeping. If you get up in the middle of the night and turn your phone over to check notifications, that can quickly turn into 30 minutes of mindless scrolling. That’s 30 less minutes for you to get into REM sleep and heal your body and mind. And that’s even more blue light, continuing the cycle of suppressing melatonin.

Physical brain changes

Brain scans from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study found some alarming results. Adolescents who used screens more than seven hours a day had a thinner cortex, or outer layer of the brain. Kids who didn’t use screens this much had a thicker cortex, the part of the brain that processes information from the five senses. The two are correlated, but that doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other. More research is being conducted before scientists can be sure. Still, this is a concern.

The cortex naturally thins slightly with aging. So for teenagers and young adults who spend much of their day doing mindless digital activities, this could speed up the process and is detrimental to brain health when they reach adulthood.

Tips to mitigate the poor effects of screen time on the brain

  • Turn your phone and laptop to night mode at least three to four hours before bedtime. Or, invest in a good pair of blue-light blocking glasses (you can find them on Amazon) and wear them during screen time sessions.
  • Optimize your smartphone to your advantage. Some tips include only keeping your most necessary apps, leave email and Slack to your laptop, switch to grayscale, add a passcode for screen time, and eliminate badges that show up as a red dot when an app has something new.
  • Watch what you’re doing during your screen time. Are you overusing apps that activate your brain’s reward system, like Instagram and TikTok? Can you use some of that time toward reading an ebook or the news?
  • Set times to unplug and “technology free zones.” These are helpful for people of all ages. For parents setting guidelines for their children, follow suit in order to help your own brain health, too. Set an hour to spend time with loved ones without any devices. We often don’t realize that we’re constantly looking at some kind of screen.