Addicted to Blue (Screens)

Alise Sousa

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How much of your day do you spend looking at a screen? The average American adult spends about ten-and-half hours per a day, according to the 2018 Nielson Total Audience Report on media use, the majority of which is spent on screen devices, including TV. And it makes one wonder whether all this screen time may have some kind of effect on people. Well, according to the Nielson Report, it turns out screen time has plenty of negative effects on the mind and body.

Adolescent behavior and brain growth are both impacted.  “As a practitioner, I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome,” wrote psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley in her 2014 Psychology Today article, “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain.” Dunkley reports, “These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention…”

In her article Dunckley references and summarizes the findings of several studies on people with the Internet and/or Gaming addiction. In these studies it was found that actual brain shrinkage occurred in several gray matter areas crucial to executive functions (such as planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control) involved in reward pathways, and–disconcertingly—also in areas involved with our ability to empathize and recognize emotion in other human beings. Patients likewise suffered from compromised white matter–the connections that exist within the brain and that send signals to the rest of the body. The damage to white matter caused the brain’s messenger connections to slow down, “short circuit”, and “misfire signals”. As well as impairing cognitive function, causing cravings, and compromising dopamine function– which is normally released in reward processing. Dopamine is, in fact, implicated in addiction.

So, what’s so bad about dopamine? Dopamine activates the pleasure pathways in the brain, but nothing is wrong with activating when we stimulate its release the normal and natural ways. No, it’s only when we seek unnatural sources to stimulate the release of dopamine that it becomes a problem. “No two addictions are identical, so addiction to screens is not the same as addiction to cocaine, either in intensity or effect,” says youth counselor Nicola Morgan in her Blog article How and why are our screens so addictive?” But Morgan goes on to say, “The same reward pathways in the brain (the mesolimbic pathways) are involved, production of the same chemical, dopamine, the thrill/pleasure neurotransmitter. So there is a strong similarity in process.”  And in the modern environment, we are constantly surrounded by artificial stimuli for dopamine.

  Internet use, gaming, and social media release the chemical dopamine in the brain. “I feel tremendous guilt,” confessed Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, in response to questions about Facebook’s exploitation of consumer behavior in a 2017 interview at Stanford Business School. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”  Like other addictions, a compulsion to look at screen devices places strain on the family and societal relationships, sometimes even replacing them.

Many may argue that addiction is too strong a word, but the internet and gaming obsessions are considered addictions. People with screen addiction “may feel compelled to do so, even as [they] reject the idea of compulsion. Instead, we acknowledge this desire as an itch or yearning, a restless yen to stop doing our ordinary activities and do this instead,” explains Thomas Hendriks, Ph.D., in his Psychology Today article Screen Addiction: What Are We Looking For?”   “We could stop if we chose.  But we don’t ‘want’ to.” The iconic catchphrase of addicts worldwide. Psychologists argue that this feeling of urgency is a form of dependency. “Like most things in life, our feelings of dependency exist by degrees,” continues Hendriks. “Our addictions to alcohol or other drugs may be profoundly physiological conditions, with terrible withdrawal effects.  Other commitments – like our desire to be online as much as possible – are perhaps more psychological in character, though they too are fed by biochemical processes.”  But not only do what we choose to watch and do with the devices that have an effect on us, but the blue light from the screens does damage as well.

According to a Harvard Medical School article, blue light itself shifts the circadian rhythm, a sort of twenty-four-hour body clock that dictates when you sleep (along with other bodily necessities), by three hours. Blue light from screens also suppresses melatonin, the chemical that helps your brain relax and fall asleep, for twice as long as other light sources. While any light at night seems to disrupt the circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin, blue light seems to be the worst, causing longer sleep delay and longer-lasting effects. An article from Prevent Blindness claims that blue light may cause digital eyestrain, and age-related macular degeneration–a sort of blurry or blind spot in the retina that eventually causes further vision loss. Luckily, there are ways to protect yourself from the negative effects of blue light.

You can protect yourself and others from the negative effects of screen addiction by understanding the harmful effects and spreading that information, by recognizing whether it has begun to be harmful to your health or relationships, and by reducing or controlling how much time you spend on your screens. Try to expose yourself to plenty of sunlight during the day; sunlight helps your body produce melatonin. And avoid looking at blue screens for two to three hours before bed. If you or a loved one needs to use a device constantly for work or school, consider getting a light filter or blue light blocking glasses. For more information consider clicking the links provided and to find out more about addictions visit https://www.addictionsandrecovery.org/what-is-addiction.htm

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