When I was a kid, the only warning we had been given about technology and our health focused on televisions: "too much TV will make your eyes go square." But these days, as all kinds of screen-based devices — tablets, iPods, laptops, mobile phones — are common in our everyday lives, scientists have been focused on figuring out what screen time does to the body and brain. And even if you steer clear of the hysteria and tabloid reporting on the issue, a lot of the facts don't look particularly good.
Most of the research on screen time focuses on kids, because, after all, that's where the biggest difference in lifestyle is. Adults may stare at computers all day as a simple matter of course — you'd be hard-pressed to find a standard 9-to-5 that doesn't involve a screen — but children are supposed to be gleefully climbing trees, throwing apples at Nancy-Lou and engaging in other traditional manifestations of childhood, not staring at a smartphone for hours on end. Being concerned about whether children are spending too much time around screens is not exactly a new worry, but it's a field where some interesting new conclusions have been found recently. But what about adults in dorm rooms and bedrooms, scrolling Tumblr or texting until late at night? Are screens really causing prolonged physical effects on them, too?
The answer, appears to be "yes, under certain circumstances." We all know about how excess device use impacts our sleep — using bright devices before bed can cause poor quality sleep, according to medical advice — but that appears to be only the beginning of the real effect. Reading on, and learn about five ways your excessive screen time changes your body.
1. Your Brain Restructures
According to Psychology Today, one of the fundamental consequences that a large amount of screen time has on adults is a restructuring of the matter that makes up your brain. (The brain consists of grey matter, the heavy bit that makes up the folds, and white matter, which transmits messages between neurons.) These results don't apply to everyone — they're all proven consequences of screen addiction, which is a psychological condition based around severely excessive use of electronic devices — but folks who aren't addicts but do use their devices heavily may experience some version of the same restructuring. Too much screen usage seems to result in grey matter shrinkage, problems with white matter's ability to communicate, a lot more cravings, and general poorer cognitive performance. Not great news, guys.
2. You're More Vulnerable To Metabolic Syndrome
This particular finding comes from a 2008 study of adolescents, but its thinking still seems to hold true for folks of other ages. Metabolic syndrome combines diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure; it's a pretty toxic cocktail of poor health, apparently linked to an abnormally sedentary lifestyle. (You'll notice a pattern in this; the bodily damage done by screen time often doesn't have much to do with the screen itself, but rather hinges on the the fact that we sit still while binge-watching.) But the 2008 study found a a pretty strong link between screen time and metabolic syndrome, even if the kids also did a bunch of physical activity after the fact — so the effects of sitting still for hours can't be undone with a single brisk walk.
3. You're More Vulnerable To Eye Strain
Yeah, yeah, my parents were right. My eyes may not have turned square, but it's pretty well-recognised by the medical community that too much screen time is seriously bad for the peepers. Blue light from screens isn't just keeping us awake; it may also damage the retina , and eye strain from too much device use is increasing. A report by CBS had a few recommendations, including the 20-20-20 rule: after 20 minutes of staring at a screen, look at an object at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Plus, try to use the dimmer switch on your devices rather than letting them burn brightly for hours.
4. You May Not Be As Able To Process Emotions As Previous Generations
This is an intriguing one. It's a contentious discovery in children — several places, including HBO and NPR, have hosted controversial specials about whether screen time really inhibits the emotional development of kids — but it may impact adults, too. Even if you didn't grow up with an iPad within reach, lack of frequent face-to-face interaction, in favor of Facebook and other simulated emotional connections, may actually impact on your ability to process emotion properly. The results for adults aren't in yet, but it doesn't seem like such a far-flung idea; even late adopters can be seriously damaged by a technology.
5. You're Likely To Die Earlier
For decades, studies have indicated that spending significant time parked in front of a screen — whether it's a TV, computer or tablet — lowers cardiovascular health outcomes and increases mortality risk. And the unfortunate thing about this is that exercising more doesn't seem to do much about it. If you're trying to offset your days of playing Skyrim on the couch with healthy amounts of exercise each day, it may not be enough; a 2011 study of 4500 adults showed that lots of screen time raised your likelihood of death by up to 52 percent, while being a good exerciser only lowered that by about 4 percent. So it's not just the sedentary lifestyle; it's something about screen viewing itself that causes our bodies to work less well. If you want to live longer, get fitter, have a healthier heart and be able to talk to your friends properly, it seems that logging off social media immediately and going for a long, long walk might be your best option.
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