Teens and screens: the science you need to know

Teen girl on bed, looking at cell phone with headphones on while doing homeworkOver the last few decades, devices have become such a large part of our lives and one thing we can be sure of – they’re not going away.  64% of Ontario youth “spend three hours or more per day on screen time in their free time”.

There’s a lot of talk in the media about screen-time changing our children’s brains and affecting their health. So is there really any basis to screen-time being harmful?  I decided to investigate the science behind what happens in our kids’ brains and bodies when they try to meet the high demands of their devices.

Here’s what I found out:

  • Shifting focus = shifting blood flow: Most teens multitask with at least one device while doing their homework. Most kids feel they need to be “on” all the time and think that multitasking doesn’t harm the quality of their work. And for that matter, so do we adults! However, it does in fact reduce productivity. Multitasking causes blood flow to switch from one part of the brain to another. This takes time, and kids have to refocus each time they switch to a different activity. The constant interruption by alerts and notifications prevents them from giving their full attention to what’s going on. This makes it difficult for kids to learn, have a face-to-face conversation, be creative and remember information on a deeper level.
  • Release of anxiety and stress provoking hormones: The ping of a text message or an email notification causes the release of dopamine – a chemical associated with pleasure and seeking information – in the brain. This chemical makes us feel we “need to know” what’s in that text or tweet, but we never feel quite satisfied, so we are always anticipating more (you may have heard the term “FOMO”, or “fear of missing out”). This feeling of needing to continually check and respond to devices causes anxiety. Get this – 72% of teens feel the need to respond immediately to their notifications! (Common Sense Media) This compulsion also causes the release of another hormone – cortisol – in the brain. Cortisol is released when we experience stress, and the continually high cortisol level created by device use keeps our teens feeling stressed. Research by Dr Larry D. Rosen, a recognized expert in the psychology of technology, has shown that when teens are without their phones, or worry that their phone is running out of charge, their level of anxiety increases. The people who design devices know the research, and as a result, phones, apps and games are purposely designed to keep kids coming back for more.  Check out this video below from Common Sense Media, showing us what kids themselves have to say about the pressures of technology:

  • Changes in brain development: Excessive screen-time by adolescents may affect their brain development in areas that regulate emotions and processing of information. This can have a negative impact on behaviour (such as impulse control), the development of empathy and compassion for others, and learning.
  • Sleep disruptions: The blue LED light from a smartphone reduces levels of melatonin in the brain, a chemical which helps us sleep. Too much blue light from a digital screen within 2-3 hours of going to sleep increases alertness. This makes it harder to get to sleep and decreases the amount of deeper sleep.  According to Harvard Medical School, poor sleep is linked “to increased risk for depression, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular problems”.

It may sound pretty alarming, but we as parents can make a big difference to our kids’ health by ensuring they use technology responsibly. As expressed in the Globe and Mail, “Screens are, in a sense, like cookies. They’re not great for you to begin with, but they’re really bad for you if they also push all the vegetables off your plate” (Kelly Grant).  Kids need time to be creative, allow their minds to wander, have face-to-face interactions, be physically active and learn to appreciate the benefits of time without technology. They may not be able to live without technology, but their physical and mental wellness, as well as school performance, can definitely benefit from time without devices. By setting screen limits, having device-free zones, encouraging offline activities, being a good role model, talking about their feelings, and reducing multitasking, you can help your whole family develop a more balanced approach. And don’t be afraid to share the scientific findings with your teens. You may have heard the phrase: “Disconnect to reconnect, put your phone down and be present”.  The science makes a strong case to take this advice!

How do you help your teen find balance? Share with us:

For parenting information or to speak with a Public Health Nurse (every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) simply dial 311 or 905-825-6000.

About Tamara Kraszewski, RN

I’m passionate about connecting with parents and supporting them in their parenting journey! My nursing career began with caring for infants at the Hospital for Sick Children followed by working as a Public Health Nurse supporting parents with children of all ages. I’m the mother of two grown boys and when not at work, I enjoy cycling, swimming and time with family.
This entry was posted in Children & Tweens, Emotional Well-Being & Mental Health for Your Child/Tween, Emotional Well-Being & Mental Health for Your Teen, Keeping Your Child/Tween Safe, Keeping Your Teen Safe, Parenting, Parenting Your Child/Tween, Parenting Your Teen, Teen Brain, Teens and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Teens and screens: the science you need to know

  1. Kristi says:

    I am so grateful for the information you share in this article. It is a major concern. Parenting has always been complicated — and more so with the addition of technology. Some parents just do not have any idea how to deal with it. I like the analogy about cookies shoving veggies off the plate.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed this blog Kristi. Technology is still pretty new and we are all still learning how to live with it (let alone try to parent with it)! Every little bit of information we can gather helps to move us forward! ~Nicole

  2. Steve says:

    Great summary of the findings out there, thanks!

  3. Karen says:

    Very informative, thank you!

  4. Gen J says:

    Had suspicions, didn’t know the specifics. Thank you!!

  5. Jasmine says:

    Great article.

  6. Stuart 72 says:

    I could definitely work on being a good role model. Thanks for the info!

  7. Tom says:

    Many thanks, this is helpful.

  8. Robyn Irving says:

    Thank you very much for your article. I’d appreciate talking with you about whether you might be available to speak on this topic at Halton’s Parent Involvement Committee’s annual conference in October.

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