Staring at a Screen: the Real Effects of Your Phone Addiction




We all do it. We spend hours and hours staring at a computer screen. And then, when we stop looking at our computers, we open up our phones or tablets or turn on the television and stare at that for another obnoxious amount of time.

Americans spend approximately 8-11 hours a day on screens. Without screens, there wouldn’t be jobs like the ones I’m looking to go into –the production and development of media. Screen time isn’t always a bad thing, but there are implications that go beyond the office or the classroom – into everyday life.

Here are just a few of the biggest problems that we face these days in this advent of more and more screen-based technology.

Problem #1: When we are bored, whether we are waiting for something or otherwise not doing anything, our initial instinct is to reach for our phones. Of the screen time listed above, adults spend almost 3 hours a day on their phone.

We automatically log into social media without thinking about it, aimlessly scrolling through feeds that we probably aren’t even paying attention to. We click onto games that are both pointless and mind numbing, not even stopping to realize what we are doing.

Our fascination with our cell phones is becoming an addiction that is 36% more more stimulating than eating or drinking. And the information we put into our cell phones, which is essentially everything for most people, is being collected and sold by companies, which makes it great for advertisers, but lousy for us. We have almost no privacy at all anymore, even against our wills.

This current addiction to cell phones is triggered, in part, due to the dopamine receptors in the brain. This is the pleasure center and it is the same hormone that is released when we gamble or have sex. Playing video games has been linked to turning on this center, as does social media. Every time we see a new post or we get a like/comment/any kind of reaction, that center lights up, sending a wave of positive reinforcement into the brain.

Problem #2: I know when I stare at my computer for long periods of time doing homework (or watching Netflix for that matter), I never think about my health. There are so many other things to focus on, so why should I care about what my extensive screen time is doing to my body. It shouldn’t matter, right?

Well, it does matter. Common things that are impacted by screen time include vision and sleep, and specifically in kids and young adults, self-confidence and learning ability.

        Let’s break some of this down.

Our vision is strained from staring at a screen; causing blurred vision, dry eyes and headaches. And chances are, if you aren’t sitting properly, poor posture can cause neck, back and shoulder pain.

As far as sleeping is concerned, the blue light emitted from screens suppresses the naturally made hormone that controls your circadian rhythm (sleep/wake cycle). Our minds stay engaged when we are staring at screens, even if we are just watching a movie, which tricks our mind into thinking we need to stay awake. Essentially, every time you reach for your phone to Google something random in the middle of the night (I do this a lot), you are telling your brain that you don’t need to sleep.

I could go on and on about technology and sleep, but there’s just one more thing I want to say. In the past two or so years, computer/phone manufacturers have created a setting know on Apple products as “Night Shift” (also known as “Night Mode” on Android/PC products). This setting reduces the amount of blue light emitted from a device. Researchers have found that even with it on, melatonin production is suppressed and that screens still have the impact of alerting the brain, disrupting sleep.

In a University of Michigan study from 2012, it was found that the more time that a teenager spent on their cell phone, the less satisfied they were. Teenager’s happiness is dependent on being in front of a screen. They are substituting face-to-face contact, and sacrificing their well being as well.

Do you remember when you were in school and the teacher would say that writing things down helps you learn the material? Well, as it turns out, those teachers were right. Typing does not have the same effect as hand writing material, which can lead to a lack of understanding on the part of the student. When we type stuff up, we try and transcribe what someone is saying word for word (trust me, I do this all the time). In contrast, when we take written notes, we are forced to paraphrase what the person said because we aren’t able to write down everything. Our brain takes the concepts and key words that the teacher is saying and remembers them.

Problem #3: Picture this. Two babies were born within a couple of weeks of each other. One, lets call him Adam, is the product of a struggling family, was sat in front of a television before he was old enough to even lift his head up. A tablet was placed in his hands before he knew it was anything but a chew toy. The second baby, lets call him Ben, is the product of a wealthy, educated family. He was given toys and books, but as soon as he came near them computers were turned off and cell phones were put down, with the exception of the occasional FaceTime call to his grandparents.

While they may be growing up in different types of households, these baby’s brains will be impacted by early childhood use of screens.

Between birth and the age of three, their brains will go through big changes, which will be the foundation for what brain function will be for the rest of their lives. One of the problems is, while Adam is learning about different stimuli that a tablet might flash at him and the ability to do multiple things at the same time, his brain shouldn’t be focusing on that quite yet. The tablet does the thinking for him, which allows for his brain to get lazy, making his cognitive function weaker.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages the use of screens for those under 18 months, and suggests that between 18 months and 5 years screen time is limited to around an hour a day.

While Ben is more likely to be taken outside and experience the different textures, sights and colors of the real world, Adam will most likely spend much of his time staring at screens. This, in the long run can have detrimental consequences for Adam’s social and emotional development. That tablet of his is preventing him for learning to decode human interactions, which could dull his sense of empathy, for good.

I know, I know, you probably don’t care as long as you can hang out and watch the latest season of Stranger Things while scrolling through social media on your phone.

I do it too. It’s an engrained part of our culture, whether we like it or not.

What I can suggest though, is for every hour or so you spend on your computer (either doing work or goofing off), take a few minutes to get up, stretch, and go outside.

Instead of instantly picking up your phone when you’re out and about, take in what is around you. Savor the moment.

And when you are going to bed, pick up an effing book and read that instead of answering a few more emails or watching a video. It will help your health, and your sleep, in the long run.