Staring at a smartphone or tablet is quickly becoming the default pastime for many of us. Social media has become an ever-present temptation that’s difficult to resist. We enjoy the constant stream of entertainment, and the ability to connect with friends and strangers around the world.
A current study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeking to uncover the ways in which screen time—and social media in particular—may be impacting the neurological development of young people.
The study—which has been underway for over a decade—has been examining the brains of more than 11,000 children. It points to significant differences in brain chemistry between children who use devices with low and high frequency. If a child spends more than seven hours in front of a screen per day, the changes in their brain chemistry become especially notable.
Social media and brain chemistry
Researchers have been tracking the impacts of social media on the brain using brain scans. Study participants undergo regular MRIs while engaging on Instagram. The brain imaging indicates that such interaction stimulates the reward center of the brain—and releases the feel-good chemical dopamine.
This causes higher levels of cravings and desires—making the participants more likely to continue to engage on social media. This can lead to compulsive social media behavior, and even addiction.
Screen time and healthy development
Excessive screen time can have long-lasting impacts on children’s brain development. It can impair their ability to have effective face-to-face interactions with people. It can prevent them from learning how to focus on a task without constant distraction. In addition, it can negatively impact their ability to sleep—leading to additional problems in learning and development.
Effects on mental health
Scientists are currently investigating causes for recent surges in depression, anxiety and social fragility among adolescents. There are strong indicators that two contributing factors may be:
- Social media use
- Sleep deprivation resulting from excessive screen time
Limiting screen time
According to pediatrician recommendations, no child under the age of two should have any screen time. As children get older, it’s important to monitor their screen time to help ensure that it doesn’t negatively affect their mental health or sleep cycles. Children require considerably more sleep per night than adults:
- Elementary school children: 11 hours
- Middle school children: 10 hours
- High school children: 9 hours
Screen time can severely hinder a child’s ability to rest and learn. Parents can be integral in helping their children develop healthy habits around such devices.