When Did We Get So Scared of ‘Screen Time'?
Reason magazine|June 2019

The myth of brain rot from glowing rectangles.

Jesse Walker

“Too much screen Time Damages the Brain,” says Psychology Today. “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley,” announces The New York Times. “Finally, we’re all wising up about the dangers of screen time for kids,” adds the Los Angeles Times. Then there’s the New York Post, which in 2016 ran a Nicholas Kardaras column headlined “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies.”

As is often the case, the headlines are overblown. The papers cited in Psychology Today aren’t simply about “too much screen time”; they’re about people who were dysfunctional enough to be diagnosed with internet addiction. (Not that it’s even clear what internet addiction means— researchers haven’t come up with a standardized definition of the disorder yet, and not every scientist in the field thinks it’s a useful label.) That New York Times article doesn’t deal with scientific research at all; it’s about employees at Silicon Valley companies who try to limit their kids’ exposure to the tools they work on. The Los Angeles Times op-ed spends much more time describing a shift in public opinion than defending it.

And that New York Post column wound up getting debunked in Psychology Today, which sounds a little remorseful about its earlier coverage. “You can find many similar scare headlines and articles elsewhere in the popular media, including even some here at Psychology Today,” the outlet explains. Where the Post piece invokes brain imaging studies to declare that “your kid’s brain on Minecraft looks like a brain on drugs,” the debunker points out the missing context: “The research that Kardaras referred to demonstrates that certain pathways in the forebrain, where dopamine is the neurotransmitter, become active when people are playing video games, and drugs like heroin activate some of these same pathways. What Kardaras’ and similar articles leave out, however, is the fact that everything that is pleasurable activates these pathways. These are the brain’s pleasure pathways.”

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