Young brains on screens: 5 things we know for sure

You may have seen it splashed across your newsfeed – an X-ray of a human skull with tiny bones poking out above the neck. Bones that never used to be there.

The image came from a study published in Scientific Reports, which linked the bone deformities to excessive time spent hunched over looking at screens. Within a few days, headlines spread across the globe like missives from a dystopian future: ‘Teenagers Grow Horns From Smartphone Usage.’

Technology has changed the way we live, learn, work and communicate. It’s no surprise that a research paper suggesting it’s also reshaping our bodies went viral.

It’s equally unsurprising that the sensational headlines were quickly debunked.

The ubiquity of smartphones has fueled the ongoing debate about the effects of screen time. Even major tech companies like Google and Apple – the very professionals who build and evangelize this technology – are rolling out new products aimed at helping people track and reduce their screen time.

A Pew Research Center study found that 95 percent of American teenagers have a smartphone or access to one, and about half are online on a near constant basis. That translates to about 6.5 hours a day consuming screen media, not including time spent using media for school or homework, according to a separate survey.

So, what do we know for sure? Though the next generation isn’t at risk of developing horns, here are a few things science has confirmed about the effects of screen time.

Screen time affects sleep quality

Smartphones are such an intimate part of our lives that we’re bringing them into bed with us. A new report from Common Sense Media found that 29 percent of teens sleep with their mobile devices in bed with them and an additional 39 percent sleep with their device within arm’s reach. Though it may seem harmless, notifications are hard to resist – nearly 40 percent of teens said they wake up to check their phones at least once during the night. Studies have shown that the light emitted from devices impacts the body’s circadian timing, making it more difficult to fall and stay asleep.

Screen time should be very limited for young children

Children are increasingly learning how to use technology before they can talk, walk or read. But research suggests that exposing young children to too much screen time during formative early years can impede their development. A recent study found that, on average, children ages two to five spend two to three hours a day in front of a screen—and that increased screen time is linked to behavioral, social and language delays. For reference, The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends one hour per day of high-quality programming alongside a parent for that age group.

Uninterrupted screen time affects vision

Ophthalmologists agree that digital eyestrain is a real problem. Kids spending too much time on screens can experience dry eye, headaches and blurry vision. These symptoms are usually temporary – and a result of not blinking enough while looking at a device. The solution? Take a break. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends taking a 20-second break for every 20 minutes of screen time.

Screen time keeps us more connected

Experts agree that one of the great benefits of our digital lives is the ability to connect with people anywhere in the world at any time. A 2018 survey of teens’ social media use found that “connecting with friends and family” was, by a long shot, the primary reason teens believe social media has had a positive effect on people their age. Teens who responded directly to the survey also emphasized how social media enables connections with new, likeminded people. As one 15-year-old girl wrote, “It has given many kids my age an outlet to express their opinions and emotions and connect with people who feel the same way.”

All screen time is not equal

It’s easy to think of screen time as all-encompassing, but the reality is much more nuanced. A University of Michigan study of children ages four to 11 found that “how children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction.” In other words: it’s all about the content. Aimlessly scrolling through social media and watching TV are common examples of passive screen time that don’t benefit cognitive development. But active screen time that uses technology for creative, educational and engaging purposes can significantly benefit children, and should be encouraged as technology continues to play a prominent role in their lives.