How Staring At A Screen Changes Your Brain (For The Worse)

The typical US citizen spends a staggering 50 plus hours consuming media from a screen per week. Recent statistics show that the average U.S. adult spends around two hours and 20 minutes per day online, about the same amount of time on mobile devices, and another four hours and 31 minutes watching TV.

Ever wonder what all this screen time is doing to your brain?

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, author of Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, the news isn't good. For a human to focus their vision on the area right in front of their nose for so many hours a day drives negative changes in the brain.

Because the survival of our species was dependent on seeing and responding to unpredictable events in our surroundings all around us, our brains are programmed to see ear-to-ear. Information coming from the eyes gets interpreted and turned into action primarily in the brain's frontal lobes, which take the biggest hit from this perpetual habit.

Visual activities, like staring at a screen or even driving, continually narrow our field of view to a smaller box-like zone right in front of our eyes. Our brains learn to categorize everything outside of this box as a distraction not worthy of attention and get good at filtering out anything not right in front of us. By developing sustained attention in the central view, our peripheral vision suffers, and our view of the world slowly contracts.

The field of view in humans decreases as we age. Over time, a person becomes immune to noticing life's visual surprises, and their eyes move less often.

As a result of these self-induced neurological changes, our brains and bodies get conditioned not to pay attention and not to react to the unexpected. Your brain learns to label most everything as uninteresting and unimportant, which makes for a flat, dull existence. Our brains and lives are invigorated and nourished by paying attention and being mindful.

You can imagine the negative impact this narrowing field of vision has on driving and navigating through the world, but there's more. By living in a smaller visual box, we are teaching our brains to dim the very spark of life and brightness of our spirits.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Limit entertainment based screen time to under 2 hours for persons over age 2.
  • Avoid all electronic entertainment for children under age 2.
  • Establish "screen-free" zones and times, for example in bedrooms and during dinner.

For adults who have to work at a computer all day or are tied to a smart phone where minimizing screen time is not really an option, taking regular breaks following the "rule of 20s" can be helpful. Every 20 minutes, walk 20 feet for at least 20 seconds, and look 20 feet away. They can use the time to interact with someone, make a phone call, or in some way engage with their environment.

Performing eye exercises, such as alternating focusing on objects near and far, rolling closed eyes clockwise and counterclockwise, and intentional frequent blinking will also reduce eye strain.

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