What does excessive screen time do to your brain?

Recently, we’ve all spent more time at home. We’ve worked from home, talked to friends at home, and entertained ourselves at home. And the impact on our screen time has been predictable. Across the world in 2020, we saw massive increases in the time we’re spending on our devices. 

It’s perhaps natural, given the circumstances. Yet, our excessive use of screens didn’t begin with the pandemic — and it’s unlikely to end with it either. But what is all this screen time doing to us? What effects is it having for our brain and our ability to concentrate?

That’s what we want to dig into in this article. From the impact on our productivity to the problems for our sleep — there’s a lot to cover. But it is worth being clear: not all time spent on-screen is “bad”. Talking to your mum on a video call is not the same as blindly scrolling through social. 

Note: By the way, at Screenbreak, we help readers — from fans of hard-hitting journalism to CEOs and industry analysts (and everyone in between) — enjoy their favourite written content offline. And so we’ll be paying special attention to the ways screen time affects concentration and information engagement.

Key facts about screen time

Screen time, as a term, explains itself. It’s the amount of time we spend in front of a screen each day. Whether our phones or computers, tablets or TVs, the size of the screen itself doesn’t make much difference. Across devices, the effects are pretty much the same.

But before we go there, what do we know about screen time? Just how long do we spend on our devices each day? Let’s first off see just how bad our problem has become.

  • Adults seem to be spending an average of 3.5 hours a day just on their phone. But when you add in computer usage for work, the total is (much) higher. And then we relax in front of the TV, too. This adds up. According to a 2020 study of British adults, average screen time is as high as over 13 hours daily.

  • Kids between 5 and 16 spend a daily average of 6.5 hours using a screen, according to a 2015 study by Childwise. That’s up from a 3-hour average in 1995. Teenage boys use the most, at an average of 8 hours a day. Over a year, by the way, that’s a total of 3 continuous months watching a screen.  

  • It’s a famous stat. On average, adults check their phone every 12 minutes, according to a 2018 British survey. This was, of course, before the pandemic. But as you’ll see, our devices can cause problems even when you are not using them.

Do people care? Absolutely. There’s a lot of talk on the subject (you may have heard!) — particularly relating to children. And thanks to tools that monitor our tech usage, people are slowly changing their behaviours. Screenbreak helps, by letting readers curate their own paper magazine from their favourite online content.  

4 Effects of Excessive Screen Time on Our Brains

So, on average, adults spend slightly more than half of their life on screens. It’s pretty shocking. But just how much should it concern us?

Well, let’s take a look at some of the effects of screen time – on our brains and our capacity to concentrate. Fear-mongering is not our intention. Yet, cumulatively, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Let’s take a look.

The lights of our screens reduce the quality of your sleep.

This one is well-known. The amount of time you spend looking at a screen directly correlates with your sleep duration and quality, according to studies. And that’s not just because you are interrupted by notifications or the desire to check social media (although this happens too).

Instead, the idea is that the bright lights of your screen stimulate the same chemical triggers in your brain as the lights of dawn — but before you go to bed. That means that your brain is trying to wake up as you’re hoping to fall asleep. And, unfortunately, the more tired you are, the more time you are likely to spend on-screen the next day. 

Reading a good old-fashioned book or magazine before bed, meanwhile, can actually help you get to sleep.

Screen time negatively affects your mood and mental health.

It’s a particularly concerning one. In general, higher screen time is linked to lower levels of psychological well-being. And while this is mostly documented in children, it is not only younger users that suffer.

One study of US adults found that screen time is a “significant risk factor or a marker of mental disorders”. Depression, anxiety, and symptoms of low self-esteem are all associated with an increased amount of screen time. And that’s a pretty big deal.

Of course, again, we’re not talking about giving your grandparents a Zoom call. Yet, neither are these symptoms just associated with social media use. Instead, as a result of excessive use of video games, TV, and internet devices, similar problems appear – including lower curiosity, difficulty making friends, and less self-control and emotional stability.

It disrupts concentration and shortens your attention span.

We’ve already seen how focus has been one of the victims of our devices. We noted above that we check our phones every 12 minutes of the waking day – and studies have suggested that simply having a phone nearby can affect our ability to concentrate.  

Yet, when we actually use our devices, particularly online, we enter an environment that just isn’t built for concentrated study or dedicated attention. With continual disruption from ads, notifications, and popups, it is difficult to fully get going with a task. According to one study, it takes 23 minutes to reenter full concentration after a disruption. And this only means that none of us are really concentrating ever.

Now, you cannot really take valuable insight from the article or whitepaper you are reading if you are messaging in a different tab, or scrolling through social feeds on your phone. But the distractedness we learn on-screen impacts the ways that we process information in the wider world. As one study puts it, more “cognitive effort” is required for us to focus effectively.

Screens bombard us with “rewards” (and that’s not a good thing).

Rewards sound like a nice thing. However, when our experience online is designed to repeatedly tickle our brain’s reward mechanism, the effect can be a little problematic.

Why? Well, first, what do we mean by rewards? When we scroll through social media, or else receive a notification, we do not know precisely what we are going to see. Sometimes it is interesting and sometimes it is not. However, the reward we receive when it is interesting is enough to keep us scrolling, playing, or returning to an app if we receive a notification.

Researchers link this “reward” system to dopamine, that famous chemical in our brain that plays a role in enabling us to feel pleasure. However, when we spend most of our time in an environment which stimulates dopamine, the rest of the world can feel a little dull. 

And tasks that require longer periods of effort – such as simply reading a book or a longer article — become a lot more difficult. They are just not immediately rewarding enough.

Meanwhile, those articles you’ve found that you glanced at and want to “save for later”? Let’s be honest. You’ve already moved on to more rewarding things.

Screenbreak takes your favourite content offline

At Screenbreak, we know the problems of excessive screen time. And alongside the psychological effects on our brain, too much can hurt our eyesight, cause physical strain, and damage our relationships.

But while serious screen use feels now like a fact of modern life, it doesn’t have to be. At Screenbreak, we’re creating a world in which you can enjoy online content without experiencing the problems associated with screens. 

With our browser extension, you can turn written online content into beautiful, printable pdfs. And that means you can switch off your device and finally read those articles you saved for later.