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Too much screen time can be harmful

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People sitting and staring at their phonesToo much screen time can be harmful! In January 2023, the results of a three-year study on what effects prolonged attention to social media activities like TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook revealed that pre-teens who spend many hours each day focused on their social media platforms may be physically altering essential neurological functions in their brains. The study even went so far as to indicate that too much screen time can induce what is now being called pseudo-Tourette’s Syndrome. 

Tourette’s Syndrome (TS – pronounced tooRETs) is a nervous condition that can cause people to have sudden twitches (tics), movements like blinks or facial grimaces, or to verbalize sounds repeatedly. People with TS who exhibit these symptoms can’t stop doing these things. 

A study showed that children with habits of too much screen time showed different reaction times.

The study “Association of Habitual Checking Behaviors on Social Media with Longitudinal Functional Brain Development” was published in the January edition of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network. It gathered the results of a three-year research program that conducted MRI scans on a pool of sixth- and seventh-grade students who reported extended (15 or more visits per day) activity on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. 

The findings were that participants who engaged in habitual social media activities showed “a distinct neurodevelopmental trajectory within regions of the brain comprising the affective salience, motivational, and cognitive control networks in response to anticipating social rewards and punishments compared with those who engaged in non-habitual checking behaviors.”

Putting the methods and results of the research into plain English – annual fMRI scans conducted over three years measured what is known as the Social Incentive Delay (SID). SID measures anticipation of obtaining a social reward and avoiding a social punishment. Participants who spent too much screen time were presented with a cue image (an adolescent face with an emotional expression) indicating whether the social feedback would be a reward, punishment, or neutral. After a delay, students had to respond by pressing a button as quickly as possible. The MRI measured the reaction time according to the image type.

After measurements each year for three consecutive years, the results showed that the children with habits of too much screen time on social media showed differences in reaction times in specific areas of their brains compared with those without such levels of social media activity. The areas affected are involved in behavior and emotions, such as the amygdala, which is a part of the limbic system playing a key part in emotional control and processes, memory, and learning; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with executive functions like focusing attention, predicting the consequences of actions, anticipation of events in the environment, impulse control, and managing emotional reactions; the insula, responsible for risk-reward behavior; and ventral striatum, which has a prominent role in reward processing.

These results suggest that too much screen time leading to prolonged and frequent activity on social media in early adolescence may cause changes in neural sensitivity relating to the anticipation of social rewards and punishments. Ultimately, these could have implications for adolescents’ psychological health and well-being.

TikTok too

The path from too much screen time to pseudo-Tourette’s Syndrome appears to travel along the TikTok road. A few years ago, there was a sudden surge of what was thought to be Tourette’s cases among teenage girls. The doctors found a strong relationship between the affected teenagers and binge-watching TikTok when they focused on videos with the hashtag #Tourettes. It’s believed that the pseudo-Tourette’s symptoms were a learned reaction that prompted something similar to Factitious Disorder (formerly known as Munchausen’s Syndrome but not to be confused with Munchausen syndrome by Proxy, which is when the person falsely claims that a dependant has signs of some physical or psychological illness, or even injures them). Other examples of individuals falsifying symptoms of cancer derived from accessing social media posts about these conditions have been labeled “Munchausen’s by the Internet.”

The brain is affected in real-time by social media focus

Focusing attention on social media platforms could affect how the brain works in real time. One study at UCSD monitored teenagers’ brains while they focused on Instagram. When they viewed their feeds, the areas of their brains associated with rewards were lit up. 

Evidence indicates that concentrating on electronic devices like smartphones and tablets can stimulate dopamine release. Dopamine is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter involved in cravings and desire. Spending too much time on social media could be the equivalent of swallowing a few “uppers.” 

Another test conducted by German researchers compared volumetric MRIs on two groups, one of which showed signs of being addicted to smartphone use, and the other was less engaged. Scientists from the University of Southern California conducted similar studies on students who were addicted to Facebook. They could not control their social media usage and displayed other impulsive behaviors. The results of both of these studies pointed to atrophy (shrinking) in areas of the brain involved in image recognition and psychological conflicts (the inferior temporal and insular cortices, respectively.)  Social media addiction correlates with changes in areas of the brain associated with empathy (anterior insula; anterior cingulate cortex; prefrontal cortex; temporoparietal junction), impulse control (prefrontal cortex; anterior cingulate cortex; basal ganglia), emotion (amygdala; hippocampus), and decision-making (all the above).

Another group of neuroscientists has reported that the use of electronic media by teenagers at night triggers symptoms of depression and increases the risk of sleep disturbances.

What about kids with ADHD?

If a child has already been diagnosed with this disorder, a healthcare provider or counselor would normally set some guidelines about screen time. However, ADHD is not a straightforward diagnosis, and it’s quite easy (and common) for youngsters to slip under the radar because they don’t exhibit at least the minimum number of the possible symptoms. So it’s a case of “better safe than sorry.” If you are left without access to the prescription medications that try to control ADHD, or behavioral modification under the guidance of a qualified therapist, and if you are worried that a child may be a borderline case and is spending an inordinate amount of time gazing at a mobile screen, give some thought to a gentle assistance like Zoomind, which is a dietary supplement which boosts omega-3 production along with other necessary promoters of good brain chemistry.


While it is still in the early days, and further research is certainly needed, it is possible to suggest that high levels of social media activity by younger adolescents may trigger physical changes in their brains, affecting their sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.

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