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Does exposure to screens have any demonstrable effects on the brain?

Does exposure to screens have any demonstrable effects on the brain?

Tablets, computers, smartphones, televisions… Screens are omnipresent in our daily lives and are often declared to have a negative influence on a child’s learning and development.

Recurring accusations are that screens dull the mind, interfere with sleep, and cause obesity, withdrawal into oneself, and even depression. Amidst these categorical affirmations, Grégoire Borst expresses a more nuanced point of view.

As a professor of developmental psychology and educational cognitive neuroscience at the University Paris Descartes, this brain specialist doesn’t deny that exposure to screens is a serious issue, but his approach is a reasoned and scientific one.

He gladly shares his point of view at conferences which includes both his knowledge and reservations. As he explains, studies often diverge, making it difficult to form an opinion.

In addition, one mustn’t forget the brain’s plasticity, and more particularly the fact that it does not stop developing and transforming until the age of 25. This means that digital tools are too recent for their effect to have been measured seriously during studies covering that period.

Screens and cognitive development

Do screens slow down cognitive development, as is often feared? Grégoire Borst regularly mentions a study which states that babies who spend more time in front of screens tend to develop less, cognitively speaking, particularly between the ages of 24 and 36 months.

However, he puts these results into perspective, saying they make no distinction between the different types of screen or their content, two very important variables. Furthermore, it is too soon to tell if this exposure has any long term effects, which is the issue at stake.

Another study highlights attention deficit disorders in children who have spent more than seven hours a day in front of a television between the ages of one and three. Though the link is significant, Grégoire Borst emphasises that it only appears at massive doses of exposure.

Moreover, the study does not mention whether the exposure caused the attention disorders or if those children spent more time watching television because they suffered from such disorders in the first place.

Screens and well-being

Another widely shared belief is that screens have a harmful effect on sleep. Again, Borst nuances the subject by explaining that there is a negative impact, but only in specific circumstances, namely when screens are used just before going to bed or in a dark room.

Regarding adolescents in particular, who are often at the centre of this debate, those who use their smartphone for more than seven hours a day do indeed sleep less than those who use it less than two hours a day.

However, the difference is slight, to say the least: eight minutes less out of eight and a half hours of sleep.

In general, Borst claims there is no connection between the time adolescents spend on their smartphone and their well-being. Of course, certain young people have an issue with screens, but those who see psychologists for that reason are a biased sample which is not representative of the general population.

Regarding autism, which is sometimes said to be stimulated by an excessive consumption of screens, Borst emphasises that it is a neurodevelopmental problem whose origin is biological, not psychological.

Thus, without underestimating the challenges linked to screen exposure, Grégoire Borst believes they are not a public health-related issue.

More than an effect inherent in screens, he emphasises the importance of their content and the influence of the context in which they are used.

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