Harmful effects and cyberaddiction

The harmful effects of screens

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When screens are used improperly or overused, they can cause more harm than good. Among children and adolescents, studies have shown negative effects on emotional, cognitive and motor development, on emotional regulation as well as on psychological and social health.

Even though knowledge on this subject is still limited, here are other harmful effects of screens.

The negative physical effects of screens

  • Physical inactivity and excess weight
    Spending too much time in front of a screen is associated with poorer development of motor skills, poorer nutrition, a lower level of physical activity, and decreased muscle strength in children. In addition to increasing their physical inactivity, overuse of screens contributes to the risk of excess weight and obesity among the young and not-so-young.
  • Lack of sleep
    Screens emit a blue light that delays the release of melatonin, a hormone necessary to fall asleep. Young people are more susceptible to the effects of blue light because their eyes don’t filter it as well as adults’ (the crystalline lens becomes opaque with age). Screen use in the evening therefore negatively affects sleep among youth.
    Moreover, the appeal of multiple online activities (games, social media, videos) encourages some young people to delay their bedtime. This phenomenon is even more widespread among teenagers, whose biological clock tends to naturally shift, which already keeps them more awake in the evening and makes waking up early in the morning more difficult.
  • Pain
    Using screens in a position that is not ergonomic can lead to long-term posture problems that can cause, for example, back, shoulder, neck and wrist pain.
  • Vision problems
    Prolonged screen use can cause dry eyes (because we blink five times less when looking at a screen), eye strain, blurred vision, headaches, burning, itchy eyes as well as a loss of attention or focus. In the long term, screen use can lead to ocular dryness, fluctuating vision, and photophobia (extreme sensitivity to light), cause or aggravate eye coordination problems, and foster the progression of near-sightedness.

The negative psychological effects of screens

  • Decrease in well-being
    Misuse of screens can contribute to lower self-esteem, and to increased stress, anxiety and depression.
  • Impaired cognitive and executive functions
    Some studies show that overuse of screens among youth is associated with poorer concentration, memory, and attention. Moreover, a harmful link has been established between screen time and executive functions, which are responsible for decision-making, planning ahead, and dealing with new situations. These functions namely help youth slow their impulsive reactions, such as inappropriate aggressive behaviour. It has also been shown that executive functions are closely linked to academic success, development of social skills, and adoption of healthy habits.
  • Addiction
    Online activities can lead to addiction, just like alcohol and drugs, by activating what is called the “reward circuit”. Youth who seek and obtain constant rewards, whether by getting “likes” or notifications or by playing video games, will get used to the dopamine they produce. In addition to losing interest in activities that produce little dopamine (e.g., playing a board game or listening to a teacher at school), young people will be in a state of craving when they are deprived of it.
  • Gaming disorder
    Since June 18, 2018, gaming disorder is recognized as a mental health problem by the World Health Organization (WHO). When the “reward circuit” is overstimulated, as is the case with immersive online video games, for example, over time the brain adapts to this strong sensation of pleasure, which encourages young people to play longer and more often. Frequently observed consequences are poor academic performance, weak social relationships, poor sleep quality, mood problems, and anxiety.

The negative effects of screens on social life

  • Isolation
    Among teenagers, letting online life become more important than offline life can lead to a decline in interpersonal relationships and social skills, isolation, and professional or academic difficulties.
  • Decline in social skills
    The social development of youth can be affected by Internet and screen misuse, especially if they are regularly exposed to content that is not meant for them (e.g., hypersexualization, violence).
  • Language difficulties
    In young children, language skills are particularly affected by screen time. Having conversations with children improves their language and communication skills, which passive screen-watching does not permit.
  • Safety risks
    Some online activities, such as social media and live streaming, carry risks for teenagers’ safety (e.g., cyberbullying, sextortion).

Why are children and teens more at risk?

  • Children: Children are more influenceable than adults and are particularly susceptible to online marketing techniques and to the various harmful effects of hyperconnectivity. Their brains are developing, and so they may lack self-control, judgement, and maturity regarding screen use.
  • Teens and young adults: People in this age group tend to be more impulsive and likely to take risks. They are going through several important transitions, such as first romantic relationships, the end of schooling, leaving the family home, and entering the job market. Many of them also have a lot free time. As their brains are still developing until the age of 25, teens and young adults have more difficulty maintaining control and finding a balance between online and offline life, which puts them more at risk of experiencing negative repercussions associated with their Internet and screen use.

Beware of the term “cyberaddiction”!

The risks of the Internet and screen time are often associated with cyberaddiction, which only affects a small percentage of youth (a little more than 1% of Quebec high school students). However, hyperconnectivity is associated with a multitude of harmful effects that concern us all. The important thing is to be aware of it to try to reduce the negative impacts.