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The Physical Effects of Prolonged Screen Time

When I was a kid my parents didn’t let me play video games on school nights. Looking back, this seems like a relatively arbitrary “you’ll rot your brain” decision, based on a willful lack of understanding of the problem solving and critical thinking aspects associated with Mortal Kombat 3. (I’m not bitter)

However, in the intervening years, the amount of time children are spending in front of screens has grown exponentially. It has become more and more difficult to set screen time limits when laptops and tablets are a vital part of the learning process at school and for homework.

Potential Long-Term Effects

It is not a stretch to say that some people spend nearly every waking minute of their day in front of a screen of some sort. This can be specifically damaging for children.

It’s difficult to know the long-term physical effects of so much screen usage because it’s still a somewhat new thing. We won’t know what a lifetime of near-constant screen usage does to the body until the first generation to have it gets older.

That said, the outlook isn’t particularly promising. The blue light emitted from most screens already has clear effects on a person’s ability to fall asleep. So far, there is no evidence that prolonged exposure is otherwise harmful in and of itself. However, the blue light stimulates the brain in a way that allows you to focus for prolonged periods of time without feeling the need to take a break. This is bad for both your eyes and your cognitive function.

An easy fix would be taking 20-minute breaks every 20 minutes or so. This is easier said than done. Usually, when someone is using a blue screen device, they are actively in the middle of a task, frequently breaking up that task is especially difficult because of the previously mentioned stimulation effect.

It’s worth the effort though. It is predicted that nearsightedness may be one of the long-term effects of the constant strain.

Short-Term Effects

Did you know that you can become addicted to device usage? I’m not talking about hyperbolic, “you use it too much,” I mean full on brain chemistry addiction.

When you do well in a game or see something you like, dopamine is released into your brain creating a ‘feel good’ feeling. It’s the same thing that happens when smokers smoke. In fact, brain scans have shown that screen usage and cocaine affect the brain in similar ways.

This can lead to withdrawal, temper tantrums and other compulsive behavior. Obviously, these effects are intensely magnified when it comes to children. What’s worse, children growing up now will have never known anything different. Research has shown that kids are increasingly learning how to interact with technology before they can even speak or walk.

Then there’s dry eye syndrome. Basically, you’re so focused that you blink less. Prolonged eye dryness can lead to damage and potential vision loss.

How Long is Too Long?

Fair warning, it’s less than you probably think. In fact, it’s less than is probably realistic. The American Health Association suggests limiting the screen time of children 8-18 to only 2 hours a day; 1 hour for anyone younger.

However, there has been some pushback to these recommendations from doctors. The idea of a blanket cap simply doesn’t make sense in a world of taking notes with laptops and doing homework on tablets. They suggest the focus should be more on what the specific media is more than the actual time. Entertainment should be limited while leaving more flexibility for educational purposes.

There seems to be some convenient hypocrisy in this approach. However, there also aren’t many better alternatives. Time will tell.