Brains & Screens

Screen with old man and iphone taking a picture of him.


Researchers conducted numerous studies on children and adults with internet and gaming addictions.  The evidence they found is most noticeable in a young, developing brain, but has the same effect on the adult brain as well.  Brain scan research showed the following findings:

  • Gray matter atrophy:  Shrinkage or loss of tissue volume in grey matter areas where processing occurs.  These areas included the frontal lobe (which is responsible for planning, prioritizing, organizing and impulse control), the striatum (involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses) and the insula (which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion).
  • Compromised white matter integrity: Researchers observed “spotty” white matter which is symptomatic of a loss of communication within the brain, including connections between the hemispheres and paths between cognitive and survival brain centres.  This might cause signals to slow down or become erratic, impacting on behavior.
  • Reduced cortical thickness:  The outer cortex of the brain becomes thinner in gaming addicts which is correlated with cognitive impairment.
  • Impaired cognitive functioning:  Imaging studies showed a propensity to reduced impulse inhibition, poor task performance and increased sensitivity to rewards and insensitivity to loss.
  • Cravings and impaired dopamine function:  Dopamine is released during gaming, and its continued secretion leads to a reduction in the number of dopamine receptors and transporters, while creating cravings for gaming that are similar to drug cravings.

In short, excessive screen-time impairs brain structure and function – mainly in the brain’s frontal lobe.  The frontal lobe is responsible for success in every area of life – from a sense of well-being, academic or career success as well as relationship skills.

Electronic Screen Syndrome

Electronic Screen Syndrome is commonly seen in children, and is characteristic by hyperactivity, a lack of focus, exhaustion, impassivity, lack of motivation and over stimulation.  This is often treated as ADHD or ADD, but Dr Victoria Dunckley calls it Electronic Screen Syndrome.  The unnaturally stimulating nature of electronic screens, irrespective of the content they bring, has ill effects on mental and physical health. The effects can be separated into groups relating to mood, cognition and behavior.  Repeated stress on the nervous system makes self-regulation and stress management less efficient.


Dopamine is secreted as soon as a piece of information is found.  Dopamine is the pleasure hormone that is implicated in all forms of addiction.  We have an instinct to gather as much information as possible.  Knowing more than someone else gives us status in that interaction.  Through the internet we’ve created an environment of unlimited information. The result is compulsive behavior – checking your phone for new information that might have popped up.  Most people check their phone last thing before they go to sleep and first thing when they wake up in the morning.  Adults look at their smart phones an average of 160 times per day.


We have two forms of memory:

  1. Working memory – Small capacity Memory ( 2-4 elements of info at a time)
  2. Long-term memory – Incredibly large.

The key to deep thinking is to take information from your working memory and transform it into long-term memory. This is done via a process called memory consolidation.  New pieces of information is connected to other knowledge in our long-term memory.  This leads to rich thinking and conceptual knowledge – even wisdom.  But it’s very easy to break the process of memory consolidation due to the small size of working memory at our disposal.  Nothing stays there very long, especially if new information is constantly replacing what is there.  Another problem is that memory consolidation only happens when we’re attentive and focused.

We are so distracted in our interaction with this rich, constantly changing information stream that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consolidate our working information to long-term memory.

Multi-Task – Jumping

Researchers at Stanford University found that people who often multi-task – jumping from one site to another, to e-mail to messages and back to the internet for example – have great difficulty distinguishing trivia from important information.  In multi-tasking and gathering information, the priority is on what is new, and not on what is important.  This leads to a world where we are subverting our ability and motivation to think deep and meaningful thoughts.


The benefit of all this media stimulation is that we have greater visual acuity.  Our brains can shift from one image to another much more effectively than before.  The trade-off for this, however is creative thinking, reflective thinking, mindful knowledge acquisition and critical thinking.  By becoming slaves to our technology, we have cut ourselves off from what makes us human – thinking about what gives our life meaning.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We are ceding our examination of life to technology and its ability to infotainment us.

Eyes reflecting screens and color of social media