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Screens and the Stress Response

A growing body of evidence links electronic screen media to stress markers.

Screen-time and stress
Screens are a form of environmental stress

I just returned from an inspirational week-long conference on the science and application of integrative medicine. Highly informative, the theme heard again and again was that mitigating stress through a combined approach of mind-body work, proper sleep, exercise, reducing toxin load, and eating a nutritious diet was highly effective in combating illness — and had a much greater impact on prognosis than traditional western medical treatments — whether that “illness” be mental or physical.

What I didn’t hear much of (or at least not enough of) was the impact of screen time on stress and illness severity, particularly in regards to mental disorders, which are highly sensitive to stressors of any kind. A primary goal of the integrative medicine approach is to take the body out of fight-or-flight mode and into healing mode as much as possible. How can we ignore the impact of screens, which assault us daily? Screen time has a lot of negative health effects, but this post will focus on studies that link screen time to stress markers.

Study Findings on Electronic Screen Media Associated With Physiological Stress Markers

1. Computer game playing assessed as valid psychological stressor to induce physiological effects of stress, including changes in autonomic tone (heart rate and blood pressure), EMG (muscular activity), Galvanic Skin Response (skin conductivity), and cortisol levels (Sharma et al., 2006).

2. Computerized games can impair blood sugar control and delay digestion (Blair et al., 1991).

3. Attention can be impaired via the stress hormones norepinephrine and cortisol following psychological stress (video game used as stressor) (Skosnik et al., 2000).

4. Screen time is associated with narrowed vasculature of the retina (narrowed vessels at the back of the eye, a cardiovascular risk) in children, while time spent outdoors is associated with healthy retinal vasculature (Gopinpath et al., 2011).

5. Screen time is associated with metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, blood sugar dysregulation, high lipids, obesity) in adolescents independent of physical inactivity (Kang et al., 2010).

6. Video game playing is associated with increased food intake in adolescents (Chaput et al., 2011).

7. Exposure to EMFs (electromagnetic fields) from cell towers is associated with perceptual speed increase and accuracy decrease (consistent with a fight-or-flight response), as well as sleep problems (Hutter et al., 2006).

8. Cell phone use and texting is associated with faster, but less accurate, cognitive responses in teens (Abramson et al., 2009).

Hopefully these studies provide some food for thought. Advising parents to severely limit screen time is often met with resistance, and part of that resistance, I believe, is due to an under-appreciation of screen time’s potent effects on the stress response. Looking at evidence clearly linking screens to stress markers can help fill that gap and push all of us to remember that strict limitation of screen time should be an essential component of an integrative approach to mental wellness.

For more help with understanding the impact of technology use on the growing nervous system, see Reset Your Child's Brain: A 4 Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades & Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.

More from Victoria L. Dunckley M.D.
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