Reflecting on the past 20 years of modern history, we can see how much our lives have changed. Who could’ve predicted that small glass rectangles––our smartphones and laptops––would consume most of our waking day? In fact, teens spend an average of 7 hours and 22 minutes on a screen each day. If the average teen sleeps for 7 to 7.5 hours, then we can say that screens take up around 45% of the time we’re awake––45%! That’s almost half of our day spent staring at a monitor consuming information. Surely, there’s something wrong with this. Though there was a long time when people sat on a couch all day watching TV, that was usually limited to the living room in your house. You wouldn’t be able to take a TV with you during a commute or watch videos during class. Sure enough, this is causing some alarming psychological effects.
First of all, the increase in screen time is creating a generation that is unable to cope with boredom. Screens and the internet are addicting, and there’s a reason for this: our brains crave novel information. We’re a naturally curious species.
In a historical context, this makes a lot of sense. It’s what ensured our survival as a species. Our genetic predisposition towards wanting to acquire knowledge has enabled us to explore new regions to procure resources, create tools and find solutions to natural problems. But our brains are poorly equipped to identify when we’re ingesting too much. This can also sometimes be the case for conditions such as binge eating, where our brains are still stuck in the age where food used to be fairly scarce. When there was excess food, it was actually identified as a rare opportunity to stock up on as many calories as possible. Similarly, our brains respond the same way when it is provided with an access of information and sex. Our brains keep on rewarding us with a hit of dopamine to urge us to consume more and more. Simply put, our brains are simply not evolved enough to know when to stop.
This could also explain why tobacco use in teens is rising. According to the Center for Disease Control, one-in-four high schoolers used a tobacco product in the past 30 days. It can be theorized that the constant access to screens translates to the use of nicotine, since both provide a dopamine rush. It is also well documented that if people are addicted to a substance while their brains are still developing, it lowers their addiction threshold for substances in the future. So, it may be possible that screen addictions are lowering the addiction threshold for substances such as nicotine.
Apart from time-wasting and a possible gateway to other addictions, what is so wrong with the overconsumption of information? One answer is the overstimulation of our brain. Have you ever experienced a general feeling of grogginess or exhaustion after spending too much time in front of your laptop? A feeling that your brain isn’t quite clear and fine-tuned for thinking. This brain fog can have a considerable effect on your mood, increasing feelings of irritability and decreasing decision-making skills. Furthermore, it can severely affect concentration, focus and critical thinking skills.
But the effects on information overload could actually run much deeper. Do you ever feel like you’re not as sharp as you once were? Do you not learn concepts or brainstorm ideas as well as you once did? The childlike creativity you once had has been lost a bit? If that’s the case, it might be beneficial to take a bit of a break from your screens for a while. Take a break from social media, YouTube, Netflix, the news and everything else. When your brain isn’t force-fed information it doesn’t need, a remarkable thing happens. Original ideas form and creativity starts to emerge. Our minds don’t work as empty reservoirs, but rather as canvases. When too much paint is applied to a painting, it’s ruined much faster than when it’s strategically applied.