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How Does Screen Time Impact Brain Health?

We’ve all heard about how excess screen time is detrimental to our health and wellbeing.  These days we are surrounded by technology and many people have a hard time putting their devices down.  People are more easily distracted from the present moment. While technology has much to offer in terms of spreading knowledge and building community, screen time can also dampen creativity and impact sleep quality.  

Pediatrician Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children Hospital, describes how it's not necessarily how long we are using screens that matters, but for what reasons and how the brain responds to what is on the screen. He discusses how the growing human brain is constantly building neural connections and pruning away ones that aren’t used; screens provide what are considered “impoverished” stimulation compared to those of reality.  Children need diverse experiences in order for their brains to develop optimally.  This includes the opportunity for time in which the mind is allowed to wander.  During times of boredom, creativity and imagination have space to develop; this goes for all of us, no matter our age.  This is how screen time can result in less creativity. 

Unfortunately, screen time can also be addictive. Many games and social media are specifically designed to activate the brain’s reward system. While all people are impacted by this, young people are especially vulnerable as they have not yet fully developed the self-control system in the brain which plays a role in stopping obsessive behaviors. 

Another key way in which screen time impacts brain health is through its effects on sleep.  Exposure to the blue light, which is emitted from screens, suppresses the body’s natural production of melatonin; this results in disrupted sleep patterns.  Along with getting less sleep, people don’t get enough deep REM sleep, which impacts the brain’s ability to process and store information. 

In order to benefit from technology, while not compromising your health and wellbeing, create boundaries for screen time.  Be intentional about how and when you use devices.  For example, you can make it a rule to not use devices while eating, or when spending time with company. You can also set time limits for how long you will spend on a device.  Stop using devices a couple hours before bed time, and don’t keep devices close to your bed.  

Another great way to find more balance is to fill your time with creative activities.  Think about something you’ve always wanted to learn, but haven’t put any time into, or get back into an old favorite hobby.  Be mindful and notice if you feel drawn to using your device; in these moments, allow yourself to be bored and see what creative things your mind can come up with. 

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