How Screen Time Affects the Teenage Brain

We all remember our teenage years. For some of us, high school was a cool place where we got to see our friends every day, showed our school spirit at rallies and football games, got to go to dances, explored the dating world for the first time, and occasionally concentrated on classwork. For others of us, high school was a place of dread where we went for eight hours every day, got picked on, didn’t fit in, and couldn’t wait to never go back. And for even others of us, it was some combination of cool and dread that fluctuated each day, and sometimes even within the day.

One thing that remained pretty constant, however, was that each day did come to an end. After the final bell, we went home, went to practice or rehearsal, or went to an after-school job. We would eat dinner, do homework, watch some TV, and go to bed for not nearly enough hours, then wake up and do it again.

Though the overall structure of the day has remained fairly unchanged, the experience of high school has been transformed; Enter cell phones and social media.

Though cell phones have been around for decades now, they were certainly not commonplace in or before the early 2000’s, particularly in the hands of teens. I recall getting my first cell phone during my senior year of high school, and it was a huge deal! I was sworn to no more than 35 minutes of talk time per month, along with no more than 30 text messages (any extra minutes or texts would be an extra charge on our bill).

I remember getting “caught” playing Snake during lunch one day on my shiny blue Nokia, as cell phones were supposed to be in our backpacks and turned off. Cell phones were really only meant for emergencies or playing the occasional pixelated game.

After school or work, I might hang out with my friends at home or the mall, or we would call each other for a while, and maybe even connect a three-way call if we had really important things to discuss. Then I’d do my homework. Then try to avoid extended conversations with my parents because what did they know about life?! Then go to bed.

Teens nowadays, despite parental controls, despite time limits, despite a parent’s best efforts, are always on and connected.

And not connected in the sense of connection shared between people, but connected to the internet, connected to social media, connected to games, connected to humans via computer filter. This is not a substitute for genuine, face-to-face, voice-to-voice connection, though sometimes the guise does feel real.

Why is this such an issue? It’s complex, because we are complex creatures. Teens in particular are vulnerable in many ways, one of which is the still-developing prefrontal cortex within their brains. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a variety of important functions, summed up in what we call executive functioning. As defined, executive functioning “…relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes)” (Dahlitz, 2017).

This comes in to play for several reasons, as nearly everything teens say, everything they do, every picture taken and sent, has the potential for being permanently saved into the abyss of the internet. And for these hormone-raging, underdeveloped decision-making individuals, having access to such a powerful tool (phones with access to the internet, apps, etc.) can have quite high risks involved.

But no pressure, right?

  • They just have to make sure that text about liking the boy in Spanish class goes to a true friend, not someone who would screen shot the message and send it to other kids.

  • They should also make sure their photos are filtered enough so people can’t see any trace of acne…they don’t want any comments being left about it like last time.

  • Oh and they should be sure to use something like SnapChat since, chances are, the person they’re sending that uncensored photo to won’t save it to their phone and show it to all of their friends.

  • Also, teens should remember, if they use Instagram, they shouldn’t post anything lame because they don’t want any less than 28 likes…a post like that would have to be taken down because, obviously, with so few likes, people hate the post and probably hate them.

Hopefully all of those examples came across as a sarcastic exaggeration, but as adults, we can see these things from a different perspective, whereas teens see these things as the basis of reality.

If your teen has been struggling with depression, anxiety or and addiction, we can help. Call us today to get started and see how teenage counseling can help your teen.

Lauren Mahakian, LCSW is a psychotherapist located in Fair Oaks, CA. Drawing from strength-based and evidence-based approaches, Lauren collaborates with her clients to help them feel better and start living the life they want. She specializes in counseling for teens, adults, & individuals with disabilities struggling with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and trauma.


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