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Obsessive screen use ‘impairs brain function’

Disordered screen time can impact attention and higher-level thinking, research reveals

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Problematic screen use impairs a range of brain functions and higher-level thinking, first-of-its-kind research has revealed. 

Analysis of the available evidence on the cognitive impacts of intensive or obsessive screen use has shown it interferes with vital cognitive processes – in particular the ability to concentrate – as well as executive functions including impulse control, planning, organisation and problem solving. 

The new paper, from Macquarie University, brings together more than 30 studies of people with disordered screen use. This includes excessive gaming, internet browsing, or use of social media or smartphones, which result in serious negative effects on the person’s life.

Disordered screen use shares characteristics with behavioural addictions like problem gambling, and some people may even develop symptoms of severe dependency like those associated with addictions to alcohol and illicit substances.

With so much of both work and leisure time based around screens, it has never been more important to assess their impact on cognitive functioning and overall wellbeing. 

Twenty of the 34 included studies of online and offline gaming, 12 were on internet use, and one each on social media and smartphone use. The bias towards gaming and internet use were due to these platforms having been around longer, while smartphones and social media are relative newcomers to the screen-use landscape.

The paper’s lead author, Macquarie neuropsychology researcher Mic Moshel, says the results of individual studies of disordered screen use over the years have been varied, with some showing improved attention and focus in specific areas and others showing marked deterioration.

“This is the first time anyone has reviewed all the available evidence together,” he says.

“The studies used different tests, which makes it more difficult to compare apples with apples, but there was clear evidence across the board of a reduction in cognitive performance in people with disordered screen use.

“While we can see there is an effect, the extent of that reduction is unclear because only eight of the studies assessed the severity of symptoms.

“To get a better idea of how severe and long-lasting these effects on brain function are, we need to see studies featuring comprehensive cognitive assessments rather than single tests, and incorporating all types of screen use, particularly more on social media and smartphones.

“With so much of our work and leisure time based around screens, it has never been more important to assess their impact on cognitive functioning and overall wellbeing.

“Having good quality data is vital if we are to develop targeted remediation and treatment plans, and if the developers of technological platforms and devices are to take cognitive impacts into account during the design process.”

Previous research has shown that children and adolescents are the most vulnerable to disordered screen use, and developing brains are highly sensitive to cognitive impairment.

While cognitive impairment resulting from some other causes can be remediated, if left untreated, it can compound over time.

Mr Moshel says mild traumatic brain injury provides a good analogy, as it can lead to reduced cognitive performance that affects patients’ ability to learn.

“If it is not remediated quickly and effectively, then you have what’s called the widening of the gap, where you see an increasing distance develop between these children and their peers academically,” he says. 

“The effects of traumatic brain injury are well known, and cognitive remediation is one of the first things you do for a child in these circumstances.

“The difference with disordered screen use is that is not yet properly recognised as a cause of cognitive impairment. Often it is not even recognised that a child has disordered screen use in the first place.”

Currently, gaming disorders are the only type of problematic screen use to be formally classified as a mental health disorder.

“Gaming may be the only type of problematic screen use to have its own clinical diagnosis, but this is a topic of increasing debate,” says Associate Professor Warburton, one of the country’s leading experts on the effects of problematic screen use.

“It is clear to us that no matter what type of screen is involved, the disorder and its impacts look the same.

“Our review of the effects of disordered screen use on cognitive function supports this, with the same impacts recorded in studies looking at gaming and in excessive use of the internet, social media and smartphones. Gaming is simply the one that’s been around the longest.

“A 2021 study of recreational screen use found teenagers were averaging eight hours and 39 minutes a day. Most guidelines recommend no more than two to three hours.

“Clearly, this much screen use is cutting into time better spent sleeping, exploring, exercising and socialising face-to-face with friends and family, so it is entirely reasonable to think that a large percentage of our young people could be at risk of crossing the line into problematic and even disordered screen use.”

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