Change in the Brain

Screen time could cause change in brain development


Hannah Pappert

Senior Taran Kerst scrolls through social media during her down time at school. “I’m normally on Snapchat,” she said. “Sometimes if I’m like bored or nobody’s really snapping me back then it’s just mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or pretty much finding anything I can do to fill the time.”

Scout Molder, Editor-in-Chief

As  21st century version of the Roaring 20’s approaches, a first-of-its-kind generation is being raised. For the first time in history, children are being born into a world in which smartphones, laptops, the Internet and social media have already been invented and are in widespread use.

According to an article from, when the average high school senior was born between 2000-2001, one of the most popular mobile phones was the Nokia 3310, which had texting, calling, and gaming capabilities but no internet access. Today’s children live in a world where any device without internet capabilities is virtually useless, and anyone without a smartphone is completely disconnected.

As technology continues to advance and become more accessible to children, parents and scientists alike are becoming concerned about the consequences of growing up in front of a screen.


What does the science say?

According to an article from, preliminary data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study have shown a correlation between increased screen time in young children and a thinning of the cortex in the brain. This is potentially problematic, because the cortex is essential for processing information and critical thinking.

“There are studies that show that it [screen time] decreases the amount of gray matter that you have in your brain,” social sciences teacher Claire Haflich said. “All your prefrontal cortex is gray matter, like all of your major moves are going to be made up of gray matter, and pretty much all of your critical thinking, emotional processing, and decision making. All of that stuff is going to be impacted by having less gray matter, especially when you’re developing.”

However, in the same article for Healthline, Dr. Ellen Selkie, an adolescent medicine physician, said that given the narrow scope of current scientific data, there’s no way to differentiate between correlation and causation between increased screen time and reduced gray matter.

She explained that “the only conclusion we can draw right now is that two things are happening at the same time. But it’s hard to tell whether one caused the other.”

Despite the fact that evidence about the effects of screen time on the brain isn’t completely conclusive so far, people are still concerned about how much access younger children have to technology.

Junior Andrew Flory said that he’s even noticed a difference between how much time his sister, a fifth-grader, spends in front of a screen versus how much time he spent using technology at that age.

“I would watch TV and stuff, but iPhones, iPads, all that wasn’t a thing. We didn’t get those things. They weren’t an option,” he said. “And with my sister, she uses an iPad to entertain herself half the time. She is very much more screen-centric.”

I would watch TV and stuff, but iPhones, iPads, all that wasn’t a thing. We didn’t get those things. They weren’t an option. And with my sister, she uses an iPad to entertain herself half the time. She is very much more screen-centric.”

— Junior Andrew Flory

Additionally, many people are concerned about the possible addictive effects of technology.

“Also, you have addiction problems with it [technology], because it’s the same way that if you shoot up heroin, and you get a hit of dopamine from that, that spurs that physical addiction along with the mental addiction,” Haflich said. “It’s the same thing with a screen. Every time you look at it, you get a dopamine hit.”

This suggestion has been confirmed by scientific data. The article from Healthline cites a study by Dr. Kara Bagot from the University of California San Diego that found that use of electronic devices does in fact release dopamine, which is associated with cravings and desire.

Senior Taran Kerst said she definitely feels addicted to her phone.

“Definitely I’ve noticed a lot of anxiety whenever I don’t have my phone, or if it’s dead or dying,” Kerst said. “I kind of get worried and anxious, because I know if I don’t have it things are going to feel weird.”

From Haflich’s point of view, this type of addiction to technology is far from a rare occurrence.

“Everybody’s addicted,” she said. “Anybody who regularly uses their phone is addicted.”

How is screen time affecting our day to day lives?

A 2016 survey by Common Sense Media found that on average, 13-18 year olds use entertainment media for 9 hours a day, and 8-12 year olds use it for 6 hours per day. “Entertainment media” excludes time spent on school work, which means that children and young adults are likely in front of a screen for even longer than that.

Kerst is part of that statistic. According to the Screen Time app, she averages nine to ten hours per day on her phone. For her, much of that time spent on her phone stems from wanting to avoid other people.

“When I’m walking around the hallways, I kind of rely on my phone to keep me from having to socialize,” she said. “If I’m like in an elevator or at a restaurant and waiting around, I’d rather be on my phone than just standing there.”

Haflich said that this phenomena is true for adults, too.

“Adults are the same way; it’s not just kids,” she said. “Like, you know when you wait in line for something and everybody’s got their phone out. It is a social safety net, because you sit there and you’re like, ‘I don’t want to talk to that person, so I’m going to be engaged on my phone, which gives me a barrier between me and other people.’ So it’s definitely a defense mechanism for filtering out who you want to interact with in day-to-day life.”

Kerst agreed that her constant interaction with her phone in social situations is a form of self defense.

“When I’m in public, I’m always afraid of meeting somebody weird or someone that’s creepy,” she said. “It’s just easier to be on my phone and in my own world than to attempt to strike up a conversation with somebody I don’t know.”

Phones are ingrained in our society as a tool that we use day-to-day. You use your phone to navigate from one place to another, you use it for social reasons, you use it for everything. It’s your communication, it’s your music, it’s your internet access, and that’s so essential in our day-to-day lives.”

— Social sciences teacher Claire Haflich

Haflich said that she thinks this form of defense is especially common in young women due to fear of the “creepy” guys Kerst referenced.

“We are in general subjected to unsolicited attention more often than men are,” Haflich said. “It’s nice to have something where you can say, ‘Oh, sorry I’m on the phone right now. You can’t talk to me.’ It’s a way to be like, ‘I can ignore that guy who’s staring at me because I have my phone here.”

While there are some benefits to being able to use a phone to avoid uncomfortable social situations, junior Andrew Flory said that he worries about the impact that can have on communication skills, especially for young children like his sister.

“She’s much more in tune with internet culture than I am, I guess you could say, like making jokes and references and those sorts of things that are popular on the internet,” he said. “But she’s also in fifth grade and has a laptop, and I feel as though she maybe hasn’t had her person-to-person communication skills developed as much because of that.”

Haflich said that regardless of its risks, she still believes technology can be a useful tool for children, teens and adults alike.

“Phones are ingrained in our society as a tool that we use day-to-day. You use your phone to navigate from one place to another, you use it for social reasons, you use it for everything. It’s your communication, it’s your music, it’s your internet access, and that’s so essential in our day-to-day lives. Cell phones and tablets have a lot of purposes. There are educational purposes. There are things about them that make them incredibly valuable tools that we don’t want to get rid of.”

Flory agreed that the widespread use of technology as a tool isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but said people should still proceed with caution.

“It has its benefits for sure,” he said. “I think that in the technocentric world that we live in, you have to know how to use a screen and how to be able to function and act with these devices, because they’re essential to life, to work, everything. But on the same token, so is person-to-person communication, and being able to understand more than just working a screen is important to human development and the functioning of society.”


How can we make a change?

It’s obvious that technology is an essential aspect of the lives of both adults and children, but as discussed previously, science suggests that increased use of technology can damage your brain. Haflich said that this conflict creates cognitive dissonance for many people, which is the state of tension that exists when someone’s behavior is inconsistent with their attitude or knowledge about something.

“I know that that much screen time is bad for me,” she explained. “But, my behavior is that I use my phone all the time, and so I choose to trivialize and ignore the problem, just like everyone else.”

Kerst said that she thinks she and other teens can relate to that inner conflict.

“For a lot of high schoolers it turns into social anxiety where if you put your phone down you’ll miss a message or someone trying to talk to you,” she said. “So even though I know it’s bad for me and I know how unhealthy it is, I’m also so addicted and so dependent on my phone that I’m not strong enough to break away from it as well as I’m not willing to attempt to.”

When it comes to limiting screen time for children, though, Flory said that there shouldn’t be room for excuses from parents.

“I absolutely believe that we need to limit the amount of screen time that kids have, because ultimately your gray matter is really, really, really important,” he said. “I think that in some instances, a bit of screen time is fine. But, if you have a kid, you need to have a lot time where you can engage with, work with, be with and help your child and not just give them a screen all the time.”

When it comes to teens and adults, Flory said it’s important to be responsible when using technology.

“I honestly don’t think there should be a point where we entirely stop limiting,” he said. “We all need to realize that it is our individual responsibility to limit our screen time no matter how old we are.”

Haflich said the most important thing is to stay aware of negative the effects that technology can have on the brain.

“I don’t think that we should be getting rid of our phones or technology anytime soon,” she said. “At the same time, I think we need to be aware of the overuse. Know that it actually does impact the way that your brain functions.”