Problematic screen use impairs a range of cognitive processes, in particular the ability to concentrate and the so-called executive functions, which include impulse control, planning, organisation and problem solving, a study shows.
The research, published in the journal Neuropsychology Review, is an overview of more than 30 studies of people who fall into the broad category of disordered screen use.
The classification includes excessive gaming, internet browsing, or use of social media or smartphones, that result in serious negative effects on the person’s life.
These effects can include deterioration in mental health, poorer performance at school or work, social isolation and relationship problems, and neglect of personal health or hygiene, the researchers said.
Disordered screen use shares characteristics with behavioural addictions like problem gambling, and some people may even develop symptoms of severe dependency like those associated with addictions to alcohol and illicit substances.
The researchers from Macquarie University in Australia identified 43 studies that assessed the neuropsychological effects of disordered screen use, ultimately including 34 in their analysis.
Twenty of the 34 included studies were on online and offline gaming, 12 were on internet use, and one each on social media and smartphone use, the researchers said.
The bias towards gaming and internet use were due to these platforms having been around longer, while smartphones and social media are relative newcomers to the screen-use landscape.
The research mostly looked at young males, and tested a total of 58 different neuropsychological measures, with most examining attention and executive functioning.
“This is the first time anyone has reviewed all the available evidence together, said study lead author, Mic Moshel from Macquarie University.
“The studies used different tests, which makes it more difficult to compare apples with apples, but there was clear evidence across the board of a reduction in cognitive performance in people with disordered screen use,” Moshel said.
While there is an effect, the researchers noted that the extent of that reduction is unclear because only eight of the studies assessed the severity of symptoms.
Previous research has shown that children and adolescents are the most vulnerable to disordered screen use, and developing brains are highly sensitive to cognitive impairment.
While cognitive impairment resulting from some other causes can be remediated, if left untreated, it can compound over time, the researchers said. Moshel says mild traumatic brain injury provides a good analogy, as it can lead to reduced cognitive performance that affects their ability to learn.
“If it is not remediated quickly and effectively, then you have what is called the widening of the gap, where you see an increasing distance develop between these children and their peers academically,” the researcher added.