Will Screen Time Deep Fry Your Brain? Emails, Roaring Lions and the Monkey Mind

The research on the effects of using smartphones, watching TV, playing video games and the like is far from conclusive. While mounting evidence suggests that it impairs our perception, focus, sleep quality, impulse-control, emotional state and general well-being, some researchers believe that it’s premature to attribute such effects to screen time alone. Spending too much time in front of the TV definitely correlates with poor health, but it may not be the cause of poor health. Here is an interesting study on adults, screen time and well-being. After delving into some studies saying that screen time will deep fry your brain, some studies claiming that it’s perfectly benign, and some studies claiming a little bit of both, I’ve come to the intermediate conclusion that it does seriously impair your mental, emotional and cognitive abilities depending how you spend it.

There seems to be some common, scientific ground. For one thing, trying to multitask is terrible for the brain. If you think that you can successfully go about several tasks at once, you’re sorely mistaken. What appears to be multitasking is really the brain going back and forth between tasks, seriously impairing the focus, and thus quality, of your performance. The lesson is: do one thing at a time and switch your attention to a new task only once you’ve completed the first one. This means that the more tabs you keep open, the worse your performance gets. If your work is constantly interrupted by telephone calls and messages, you’ll never reach your full potential. It actually takes about twenty minutes to reach that deep sense of focus sometimes described as “flow”.  Once your phone beeps, you’re looking at another twenty minutes to regain it.

Image result for multitasking
Perhaps this is the office version of the eight-armed, hindu goddess Kali? Do remember that Kali went berserk, killed a bunch of demons and and her beloved Shiva. Picture from https://www.forsythwoman.com/multitasking-or-not/

Another sure thing is that screen overexposure is inherently detrimental to the brain (and the rest of the body, due to promoting a sedentary lifestyle). But how much screen time is too much, then? There are no clear answers. Young children, whose brains are developing, are more sensitive than adults. The research on internet addiction is indeed very clear, according to this article in Psychology Today:

“Multiple studies have shown atrophy (shrinkage or loss of tissue volume) in gray matter areas (where “processing” occurs) in internet/gaming addiction […] Areas affected included the important frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as planning, planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control (“getting stuff done”). Volume loss was also seen in the striatum, which is involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses. A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known is the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion. Aside from the obvious link to violent behavior, these skills dictate the depth and quality of personal relationships.”

These structural effects on the brain are pronounced in internet or gaming addicts, and, according to the researchers, they affect all screen-users to some degree. I, for one, can certainly notice declines in general cognition, mood and decision making after having spent too long time in front of the computer. Do you know that feeling when your senses are buzzing with impressions, you can’t really focus on anything and you’re hyperactive but worn out at the same time? And, here’s another question for you: how many of us are addicted to constantly checking our messages, social media or filling every waking moment with screen-distractions? When did you last see a relatively young person waiting for the bus or riding a train without fidgeting with a telephone?

A third irrefutable fact is that excessive screen time affects sleep quality. The brain seems to need at least one, but preferably two or more, hours of downtime before bedtime. This is connected to the stimuli that TV, social media and surfing the internet adds up to: movement, sound, light, flickering images and all kinds of activation that tells us to stay the fuck awake lest we miss out on information that our monkey minds interpret as crucial to our survival. Poorer sleep can also be caused by the content of the media in question: violence, emotional triggers, information about colleagues, friends or family that may be disruptive and keep us from disconnecting from our duties and day activity. The bottom line is that we can’t really tell the difference between a roaring lion on the screen and a roaring lion in our living room: our ancient, hormonal flight-and-fright responses are triggered by either. It does seem stupid to fall asleep in front of a  bloodthirsty beast, right?

lion-roaring

In light of this knowledge, I’m currently experimenting with limiting my social and internet related screen time to an hour a day. Any emails or messages I can’t answer during that hour will simply have to wait. Depending on the particulars of your work situation, this model will be more or less feasible. Yes, that’s right: work emails are confined to my single hour limit. I’m privileged enough to rarely receive more emails than I can answer in an hour’s time. When I do, I just prioritize the more acute ones and leave the rest until the next day. An email does not, in fact, come with saber teeth.

The point is not so much keeping within an hour as keeping within a time limit that is intentional. Instead of mindlessly occupying my mind, I make a decision as to how much of my day – and life – I spend on the internet. Some days I may set two or three hours aside, some days, not a second. There is no chance in hell that I’d take my eyes off a view like this just because my phone beeps:

Buitreras.jpg
Las Buitreras, home of the vultures, in southern Spain.

If you feel like trying to limit your social media or email time, here’s a good tip: do not schedule it first thing in the morning. If you start your day by reading your emails or messages, chances are that they will govern your agenda. They may send you out on paths that are not your chosen ones, either emotionally or workwise. I, for one, schedule my screen time in the early afternoon. That leaves me several hours of uninterrupted, beautifully flowing focus to read, research, write and prepare lectures – the actual bulk of my workday. Administration, conversation and making plans can wait until the afternoon, when I’d probably experience an energy dip anyway.

So, in fine, these are some rewards a few weeks into the experiment:

  • Days seem longer.
  • My brain feels clearer.
  • I read more and spend more quality time with my partner.
  • I’m more creative and inspired.
  • I sleep better.
  • I pay more attention to the world around me, including nature and people.

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