Is Screen Use Turning Your Brain to Mush?

Phones, tablets, TVs, and wearables may be slowly deadening your mind.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Twenty years ago the internet was in its infancy. Hardly anyone had it in their homes, and the smartest phones were palm pilots held in the hands of the Silicon Valley elite. Today, infants to octogenarians can hold the internet in their hands – and it could be making us miserable.

Hanging out with friends, playing sports in the park, or reading are activities that once filled everyone’s free hours. High schoolers today spend their time playing computer games, glued to social media, texting, or watching TV. So do their parents.

I’ve previously explored growing evidence that early screen exposure can hurt young, developing brains. And contrary to the stereotype of the nerd who finds solace online, evidence suggests that screen use can—and does—affect everyone. Nearly three-quarters of teens owned a smartphone by the end of 2017, and they spent nine hours a day online – mostly on social platforms like Facebook and Snapchat. Yet according to a recent study, teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy than those who spent less than an hour a day. Staying off of Facebook for even one week has been shown to significantly increase happiness [1].

Despite branding itself as a platform for connection, rigorous studies find that people fare better when they keep real social interactions offline. Even liking content and clicking alluring links is correlated with poorer mental health and lower life satisfaction. Instead of kicking about a soccer ball or sneaking out for a midnight rendezvous, users now connect with their “friends” via abbreviated chat-speak or by mindlessly scrolling through their feeds. They may perhaps linger on a 30-second video of their buddy’s cat. Regardless of the activity on screen, it makes them less happy than any of the low-tech activities that their parents spent time on did. Even doing homework leaves teens happier than any screen activity they engage in.

If happiness plummets as we plug in, then how do we un-plug? Tellingly, it wasn’t the teens who withdrew from digital media who were the happiest. It was those who restricted their use to a limited amount each day. As with cookies and chocolates, moderation is key.

As winter rounds to a close and spring appears we can collectively fall off the calorie-counting bandwagon. We replace one diet with another. Reducing screen time use might seem harder than a no-dessert rule and daily exercise plan you launch for the coming months. Here are five ideas to get you started:

1. Charge your phone outside your bedroom. Placing on your nightstand or your mattress keeps it temptingly within arm’s reach. Move it instead. If you put your pone in another room between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., it will be easier to dive into a book, engage in a hobby, or spend time on matters more meaningful. You’ll sleep better, too.

2. Go outside! Leave your phone (and your laptop, TV, and smartwatch) behind and venture someplace new. A quick walk in the neighborhood can boost your mood, not only because you’ve pulled yourself away from screens but also because movement boosts your natural endorphins.

3. Play cards or a board game. This may sound corny and old fashioned, but we’ve come a long way since Monopoly. Computer games may once have had the corner on playful competition, but they are now matched by card, board, and dice entertainments.

4. Disable your data input. Not everyone has the luxury of clocking out when work ends, but there are always ways to limit the relentless draw of screens by turning off whatever you can once you come home. Your phone still works as a phone without texts, banners, and push notifications, and if someone really needs you they can always call.

5. Sell, donate, and dump. Do you really need a screen in every room? By cutting down the number of TVs, computers, and other digital screens at home, or at least consolidating them in one entertainment room, you will open up space in which to engage your household and spend time cooking, drawing, or engaging whatever passions may be hiding behind the curtain that screens have drawn across your daily life.


  1. Tromholt Morten. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. November 2016, 19(11): 661-666.
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