Screens have become seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, serving as indispensable tools for work, education and leisure. But while they enrich our lives in countless ways, we often fail to consider the potential impact of screen time on our cognitive abilities.
In a new meta-analysis of dozens of earlier studies, we’ve found a clear link between disordered screen use and lower cognitive functioning.
The findings suggest we should exercise caution before advocating for more screen time, and before introducing screens into even more aspects of daily life.
Young people’s screen time is increasing
In 2020, a UNSW Gonski Institute for Education report noted a concerning statistic: about 84% of Australian educators believe digital technologies are distracting in a learning environment.
And according to the ABC, a recent Beyond Blue survey of Australian teachers identified excessive screen time as the second-most significant challenge for young people, just behind mental health issues.
Despite mounting concerns, more than half of Australian schools have embraced a “bring your own device” policy. Students are spending more time online than ever before and starting at increasingly younger ages. A 2021 report by Common Sense Media estimated tweens spend an average of 5 hours and 33 minutes using screen-based entertainment each day, while teenagers devote a whopping 8 hours and 39 minutes.
A surge in screen use has led to some individuals, including children, adolescents and adults, developing screen-related addictions. One example is gaming disorder, for which 2–3% of people meet the criteria.
What is ‘disordered screen use’?
The impact of screens on our cognitive abilities – that is, our thinking skills such as attention, memory, language and problem-solving – has sparked much debate.
On the other, schools are increasingly adopting technology to boost student engagement. Tech companies are also marketing their products as tools to help you enhance your problem-solving and memory skills.
Our recent study sought to understand the potential cognitive consequences of “disordered screen-related behaviours”. This is a broad category of problematic behaviours that may include screen dependency, and persisting with screen use even when it’s harmful.
We conducted a meta-analysis of 34 studies that explored various forms of screen use (including gaming, internet browsing, smartphone use and social media use) and compared the cognitive performance of individuals with disordered screen use to those without it.
Our findings paint a concerning picture.
Differences in cognitive function
Across these rigorously peer-reviewed studies, individuals with disordered screen use consistently demonstrated significantly poorer cognitive performance compared to others.
The most affected cognitive domain was attention, and specifically sustained attention, which is the ability to maintain focus on an unchanging stimulus for an extended period.
The second-most notable difference was in their “executive functioning” – particularly in impulse control, which is the ability to control one’s automatic responses.
Interestingly, the type of screen activity didn’t make a difference in the results. The trend also wasn’t confined to children, but was observed across all age groups.
Two ways to interpret the results
Why do people with disordered screen-related behaviours have poorer cognitive functioning?
The first explanation is that disordered screen use actually leads to poorer cognitive function, including poorer attention skills (but we’ll need more experimental and longitudinal studies to establish causality).
If this is the case, it may be the result of being constantly bombarded by algorithms and features designed to capture our attention. By diverting our focus outward, screen use may weaken one’s intrinsic ability to concentrate over time.
Crucially, impaired attention also makes it harder to disengage from addictive behaviours, and would therefore make it harder to recognise when screen use has become a problem.
The second explanation is that people who already have poorer cognitive functioning (such as less inhibitory control) are more likely to engage in disordered screen use.
This could be a result of the plethora of addictive cues designed to keep us glued to our screens. Being bombarded by these could make it harder to pull the brakes on screen use.
Although the literature doesn’t seem to favour this explanation – and does seem to suggest that cognitive functioning is impaired as a result of disordered screen use – it’s still a possibility we can’t rule out.
Attention is the bedrock of everyday tasks. People with weakened attention may struggle to keep up in less stimulating environments, such as a static workplace or classroom. They may find themselves turning to a screen as a result.
Similarly, people with less inhibitory control would also find it more challenging to moderate their screen use. This could be what drives them towards problematic screen-related behaviours in the first place.
Who should shoulder the responsibility?
Research indicates people with impaired cognitive functioning usually aren’t as well equipped to moderate their own screen time.
At the same time, researchers find themselves struggling to keep up with the pace of technological innovation. A potential path forward is to encourage open-access data policies from tech companies, so researchers can delve deeper into the study of screen use and its effect on individuals.
Authors: Michoel Moshel, PhD/Masters Clinical Neuropsychology Candidate, Macquarie University