Digital Detox 4: Impact on Brain Structure and Function

Digital Detox 4: Impact on Brain Structure and Function

If you’ve been following along with our Digital Detox series, you are now well aware of the inconsistencies in both scientific and media related literature that examines the complex world of screen media use. For example, a media article entitled, “How Screen Time Creates Kid ‘Dopamine Addicts’ with Bad Habits” calls attention to the associations often made between screen time and potential ‘bad habits.’ These habits and behaviors are then often associated with larger socio-emotional implications or pathologies, such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. However, scientific data has demonstrated only some evidence that screen media use may prompt some effects on related brain structures. These changes in brain structure were associated with internalizing pathologies like those listed above.

Since little clarity has been provided by both the media and scientific communities, as evidence in our previous posts, we decided to turn our research investigation to more conclusive evidence looking at screen time’s effects on structural brain changes. Our hypothesis is that research on structural brain changes could facilitate a better understanding of how changes in brain functions effect behavioral implications for excessive screen time users. “Previous studies have suggested structural brain changes can be affected by environmental experiences, such as childhood abuse and urban upbringing.”* Further, research demonstrates that “these characteristics can have direct implications for brain functions, such as general cognitive ability, behavioral inhibition, and subjective ratings of empathy.”* Thus, we intend to view screen time use as an ‘environmental experience’ similar to the environments like urban upbringing that suggested direct implications, above. Could screen time as an environmental experience also associate to changes in cognitive ability, behavioral inhibition and larger psychopathologies? We’ll look to the research to learn more!

To date, the largest study conducted, The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD), shows from its “baseline data – the first 4500 individuals recruited – that screen time activity - watching television or videos, playing video games, or using social media — affects structural changes in the brain.”* The investigators found different associations and changes for different forms of screen activity. Of this initial cross-sectional baseline analysis completed, “no adverse effects associated with high levels of screen activity were observed in most participants.”* Thus, “bad habits” or pathologies were not associated with changes in brain structure for a majority of the participants. However, a sub-group of participants – “those individuals in whom the frontal brain was more immature than the posterior brain – were affected."* This group of “children showed higher rates of aggressive behavior and lower levels of knowledge-based intelligence."* It seems fitting that such children would encounter these effects as “the frontal brain applies an inhibitory filter to urges generated in the posterior brain.”1 Their immature frontal brain is thus associated with “higher levels of externalizing behavior, such as aggression and bullying."* However, it is important to note that aggression and bullying are not labeled as pathologies, rather behaviors or "bad habits," as described by the media. Furthermore, it is important to note that this cross-sectional data is reporting an association, not a cause.

So what does the brain look like of a gamer? Is a gamer's brain structure similar to the brain's described above of the sub-group of participants? If so, is the gamer more vulnerable to externalizing behaviors such as high levels of aggression and bullying? The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD), argues that the gamer's brain actually looks different from the brain described above. ABCD suggest that a gamer's brain structural patterns are “suggestive of greater maturation in the visual system (i.e., thinner cortex, reduced volume, and a more complex pattern of changes in sulcal depth).”* Additionally, a gamer's brain structure was "associated with thinner prefrontal cortices but greater orbitofrontal cortical volume."*

So what "bad habits" or pathologies were associated with changes in brain structure related to gaming use? The investigators of the ABCD study spotlight a link between intelligence and gaming. Specifically, their data denotes a positive relationship to crystallized intelligence.* Crystalized intelligence is verbal knowledge and skills. It is often based upon facts and rooted in experiences such as education and exposure to cultures. The relationship is positive; increased gaming leads to increased crystallized intelligence. Overall, "these results support the general conclusion that screen media activity-associated brain characteristics are not uniformly related to better or poorer cognitive performance."*

The aforementioned data demonstrates that brain structure may be shaped by screen time, and that screen time impacts various outcome measures. These impacts may not just be linked to negative socio-emotional implications, or as the media calls it, "bad habits." Instead, the aforementioned data depicts that there is also evidence of positive relationships between structural brain changes made through video gaming and intelligence.

Ultimately, future research could analyze if the changed structure has an impact on distinct outcome measures and if these outcome measures are linked to certain behavioral functioning.

The American Psychological Association further confirms the inconclusive nature of screen time related to pathologies as APA recently added Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) to the DSM. Internet Gaming Disorder includes symptoms such as:

  • “Preoccupation with gaming

  • Withdrawal symptoms when gaming is taken away or not possible (sadness, anxiety, irritability)

  • Tolerance, the need to spend more time gaming to satisfy the urge

  • Inability to reduce playing, unsuccessful attempts to quit gaming

  • Giving up other activities, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities due to gaming

  • Continuing to game despite problems

  • Deceiving family members or others about the amount of time spent on gaming

  • The use of gaming to relieve negative moods, such as guilt or hopelessness

  • Risk, having jeopardized or lost a job or relationship due to gaming

The condition can include gaming on the internet, or on any electronic device."**

APA suggests that “there was not sufficient evidence to determine whether the condition is a unique mental disorder."** Further, the APA was uncertain about the best criteria to use to classify IGD at the time the DSM-5 was published in 2013. APA recommends future research on the topic. Like all other screen time research that we’ve discussed, video games are yet another digital platform that needs future research on

Overall, it is evident that screen time is NOT created equal. Thus, we intend to review yet another screen time format, VR, in our next post to provide answers to the digital questions we encounter in session. Stay tuned!

Should you be interested in learning more about the specifics of Internet Gaming Disorder, please visit the following website:




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