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Article by Christopher Keeney

In 2020, screen time is at an all-time high. Whether for cognitive development in children attending school virtually or for adults using screens to remain employed, screen media has evolved from the sedentary nature of viewing television throughout most of the 1900’s. As screen media is further incorporated within almost every aspect of our day to day lives, particularly with the integration of a computer within the various screen devices, the impact of screens on development has never been more controversial.  According to Elizabeth Walsh (2017) of The Sage encyclopedia of out-of-school learning, the social learning theory indicates that screen media has been useful in the facilitation of social development and the enhancement of learning through Joint Media Engagement (JME). Walsh explains that JME occurs when multiple people interact through digital or even traditional media. The interaction allows for discussion of the content and “meaning-making Processes.” (Walsh, 2017, Para. 1)  Effectively promoting social learning, JME has its roots in co-viewing television and has evolved as an important area of developmental research, particularly within the acquisition of language and socioemotional development of young children.

However, research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), over the past decade has correlated excessive screen time with disrupting normal brain development and causing long term brain damage in developing children.  Published in The European Journal of Radiology, author Chuan-Bo Weng et al. (2013) found an abnormal reduction in white and gray brain matter to be correlated with adolescents who present symptoms of an online gaming addiction (OGA). To elaborate on the consequences of disrupted brain development, Weng explains that white brain matter, when reduced, indicates a lack of communication across the brain lobes and hemispheres, and that both white and gray matter was significantly reduced within the prefrontal cortex of the OGA community. Particularly, a spotty white matter was found within the brain’s Insula. These are areas of the brain where impulse control, emotional regulation, planning and language all have critical survival roles and are also where we derive compassion and empathy from, historically linking them to violent behavior (Weng et al., 2013). Weng’s findings have had child psychiatrists and cognitive behavioral therapists alike pointing to their MRI and fMRI research as an excessive screen time warning for children. Although, what’s not explained in Weng’s research, is at what age the OGA community was first exposed to screen media, the type of games being played online, and what the long-term consequences of being exposed to the various types of screen media at a younger age may have been.  

As explained by Walsh (2017), screen media has changed and the measurement of screen time for technology use, and its associated impact on physiological and psychological health needs to be adjusted for the type of screen media being used, it’s content, and the practical applications or JME that can be achieved with it.  With the new stay at home environment, children and adults who would normally conduct academics or work in person, are now often without a choice but to be in front of a screen for multiple hours a day. After which will then use smartphones, tablets, televisions and other screen media devices as part of their daily screen media usage.  According to Statista’s Amy Watson (2019), within the publication “U.S. parental control over children’s media consumption 2019” 49% of U.S. households stated they placed limits on video game playing, and only 34% put limits on television and social media viewing. While parental controls and limits are variables easily understood, the broad assertion that all screen media devices can cause brain damage is an area of critical debate, and in need of more longitudinal research. 

Pointing to trauma, genetic disorders and environmental influence, critics of the claim that screen media causes brain damage, indicate that there are too many variables unaccounted for in determining a causal relationship. Authors Ross Thompson & Charles Nelson (2001) of the article “Developmental Science and the Media: Early Brain Development”, were featured in The American Psychologist for critically examining research in early brain development and often point to these variables as being left out within much of the early research on the topic. Thompson and Nelson are distinguished professors and psychologists who collectively suggested that screen media involving learning content can actually stimulate the mind and be beneficial for a child’s brain development.  They insisted that when doing so, it should be done using thought-provoking interaction to help reinforce the learning as it occurs, particularly with controlled interactions and limits. As they too pointed out that nonacademic screen time beyond two hours a day, could have adverse effects on a child’s health (Thompson & Nelson, 2001).  Which came shortly after the 1999 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation of only two hours of screen time a day for children age two years or older, and no screen time for children younger than age of two (Shifrin et al., 2015). 

In 1999 however, as author Donald Shifrin et al. (2015) of “Growing Up Digital: Media Research Symposium” explains, the AAP’s recommendation was based primarily on television viewing and the limited academic opportunity contained therein. Shifrin indicates the AAP has since reversed their recommendation of no screen time for children under the age of two and have issued new guidelines on screen media usage in 2015. Shifrin further explains that the new guidelines place importance on the media quality, content, co-engagement, language learning, and the implementation of a good role model to incorporate playtime breaks.  But also, to set limits based on whether or not the technology use is helping or hindering participation in other activities, such as socialization or homework (Shifrin, 2015). 

Despite controversial debate over screen media use in educational environments, it is often used as a valuable tool for instruction. Professors Constance Steinkuehler and Sean Duncan (2008) argue that there is much more to be gained within the subject of science by using online gaming as a replacement to the many failing high school science labs across the United States. Constance Steinkuehler, professor of video games and education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is also a senior policy analyst at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.  She has written and edited many books and articles on gaming, technology and literacy.  Sean Duncan, professor at Indiana University-Bloomington has conducted, written and edited much research within the study of gaming culture.  He uses his educational psychology background to study game design and learning within the university’s culture lab.  Together, they wrote the peer reviewed article, “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds”, and were featured in the Journal of Science Education and Technology. They argue that video games can play a crucial role in developing scientific habits and suggest that if the inquiry process within high schools is failing, video games could be used in place of some textbooks and science labs for properly demonstrating the inquiry process (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008).  

The interactive experience with screen media between a child and their parent or peer helps develop a strong emotional connection and enhance cognitive development. As Walsh (2017) pointed out, the interaction could potentially subvert the negative effects of excessive nonacademic screen time previously discussed in background research, by the use of JME. Discussed by Paul (2015), setting controlled limits may come easier for parents by incorporating scheduled group activities on a weekly basis, such as sports or a board game night with family that can also assist with balancing the cognitive experience and give reprieve from a sedentary routine of isolation within the various forms of screen media (Paul, 2015).  

While past and present research indicates that excessive non-academic screen media exposure damages the developing brain, evidence suggests that there is an opportunity to stimulate cognitive development using screen media. So long as it is done with academic content, proper controls and an interactive experience.  However, applying limits and enforcing them on all types of screen media devices is where most United States households are lacking. Research overwhelmingly exclaims that getting involved, adding learning content, setting controls, and not making screen media the family focus of their time together, is how modern society can adapt to the ever-increasing integration of technology. This is because screen media to stimulate learning can stop brain damage that is caused by excessive exposure to nonacademic video content.

Statement of the Problem

Without proper controls, such as the inclusion of interactive learning content and screen time limits, post 2020 society will continue to suffer the cognitive and socioemotional decline caused by an excessive exposure to screen media content.  What started out as sedentary television viewing, electronic gaming and computers, screen media has advanced to the inclusion of near constant online social networking through the various screen devices. Otherwise known as social media. It was once an occasional way to reconnect and stay in touch with friends and has become a near constant focus of many Americans’ daily attention.  Likely due to the innate need for socialization to further the human species, screen media is now the primary catalyst of reinforcement for social networking behavior. 

Blue light has also emerged as a physiological concern from the use of screen devices, particularly during the late-night use of social media. As explained by Dr. Felix Barker (2011), it is emitted from screen devices and has been shown to have adverse effects on physiological health, such as retinal damage leading to blindness, and disrupted sleep cycles. However, within a study by Jenny Bowler and Patrick Bourke (2019), filtering out the blue light emission during social media use was only found to reduce a disruption in sleep cycles if the content being viewed was low arousing.  Bowler & Bourke explain that after reviewing prior studies of the blue light effects on eye health and sleep, there are indeed adverse health effects caused by blue light, but sleep quality was still greatly impacted even with the best of blue light filters. They found this to be particularly evident during the normal use of Facebook within the late evening hours. This study furthers the notion that blue light filters give a false sense of overall health security and that late-night screen media viewing is primarily a behavioral concern.  As the behavior itself is having a much greater impact on the physiological and psychological health than just the retinal damage and sleep disruption that is exacerbated by the blue light. 

From physiological health concerns of brain atrophy discussed by Weng (2013) and blue light retinal damage discussed by Barker (2011), to socioemotional concerns of depression, serious problems are arising from the excessive use of screen media and the types of social communication they are used for, especially within the adolescent population.  Social networking in particular, has become a focus within screen media addiction research. Authors Elizabeth Ivie et al. (2020) conducted meta-analysis research of studies measuring a correlation between adolescent social media use and depressive symptoms. Ivie explains that some studies have found the correlation to be statistically significant, while others state that factors are too moderative to determine the causal relationship.  Overall, a small positive and significant correlation was found from measuring the depressive symptoms reported during social media use within the twelve studies examined, each of which contained a population of adolescents between the ages of eleven and eighteen (Ivie et al., 2020). 

Within the virtual worlds of social media, often available on every screen media device, people are measuring their self-worth with a constant evaluation and comparison to the perceived lives they see online. These thoughts can shift mental states and compound feelings of envy and inferiority from an incessant barrage of advertisement campaigns. Of which often send push notifications to continually alert the user to their screen media device and further push them into the consumerist urge of materialism, which also can lead to a perpetual cycle of debt and a whole host of other mental health concerns associated with it. Advertisement is increasingly invading all forms of screen media devices and the algorithms are designed to manipulate what is presented to the screen media user for maximum ad dollars. This includes the monetization of content and product availability within the news feeds of social media accounts, which are becoming tailored to each individual’s interest and beliefs.  This is further perpetuating a separation of individuals from diverse opinions and the objectivity of each one’s own world view, creating division. Until proper limits and controls are put into place, both at home and within corporate worlds, it is currently a problem that seemingly, is spiraling out of control. The hard reality, however, is that policy making is a slow and reactionary process that can often be manipulated with loopholes and will require going up against the wealthiest corporations in the world. If meaningful change cannot be made soon, screen media addiction is likely to worsen. 

The distress caused by uncontrolled and limitless screen time, self-evaluation of self-efficacy, ad targeting campaigns, atop the physiological health concerns, has researchers scrambling to establish the best path forward toward a healthy and productive life balance with the advancing technology of screen media. If awareness and change is not displayed across all platforms of screen media devices, screen media will continue to disrupt and damage the mental and physical health of our developing population. The purpose of this research is to spread awareness of these behavioral consequences and examine how meaningful change can be made to not only reduce adverse health effects, but to also show how a balanced use of screen media can enhance the cognitive development of the developing population. 

Limitations

The limitation of screen media research correlating a causal relationship with brain damage is that technological advancements have made previous research on screen time too broad of a category for understanding the full effects of technology use involving screens.  Screen time and the related research associated with its negative effects on physiological and psychological health was originally based on its sedentary nature and a lack of interaction with family or peers. However, a major obstacle for research indicating that the introduction of interactive academic content within screen media will avoid brain damage, is that there is still much longitudinal research needed on the advancing technologies in modern society to reflect a developmental improvement.   

Screen media research on developmental impact is physiologically limited to a population that is still developing.  While this is due to the brain still fully developing within children, adolescents and young adults, it means that it is impossible to account for every variable impacting a person’s development. Furthermore, while there are widely known stages of development, there is often a variation within each age group for the developmental milestones to be reached. Which could lead to a false hypothesis for the causal factor in the delay of a developmental milestone, such as presuming a cause for speech delay when there could be an underlying speech disorder. 

The discrepancies identified within screen media studies, are that they are based on sub-categorical research that does not fully encompass the effects brought on by all technology in which utilizes screens, and the impact they have at various stages of development. Such as the research by Weng et al. (2013) that correlated reduced brain matter and its associated health consequences with an online gaming addiction. The research was based solely on adolescents who presented an online gaming addiction and did not account for the adolescent’s previous involvement with screen media during their critical stages of neuronal development.  

Screen media addiction research is complicated by the various forms of screen media available.  Some are used solely for entertainment, and others for practical use, but neither being limited to just one or the other and is often user dependent. It is however, becoming apparent that screen media devices are increasingly becoming an essential part of our lives. This will convolute research as it progresses, given the number of extraneous behavioral variables involving screens that can be manipulated to skew data. Which is particularly impactful if the behavior involved using the screen, has more adverse health effects than the screen media device itself.  Such as was discussed by Bowler & Bourke (2019) with blue light research. This behavior, even with blue light filters, also significantly disrupts sleep quality and opens the door for altered  mental states. 

It will become more evident to measure physical and mental health improvements through the inclusion of controlled content and limits. This is particularly true within the developing population, in which advanced neuroimaging techniques can study physiological development longitudinally with the use of various screen devices and for how much time is spent on each. However, data collection through the self-reporting of adverse mental health correlates from participants while using screen media is often used, and remains as a limitation given the variability of human emotions. 

Theoretical Framework

Screen media’s impact on development involves a complex array of implications from behavioral, biological, and cognitive psychology. The innate reward system is often activated when somebody likes, loves, laughs or shares an online post that is created within social media. This is much like Ivan Pavlov’s metronome, through which he was able to condition his dog to salivate as part of classical conditioning (Clark, 2002). The notification that someone has interacted with a social media user started out as a neutral stimulus, as was the metronome.  Which over time became a conditioned stimulus as humans began to experience excitement over the sound, buzz or popup of a notification, fully expecting to find a successful social interaction.  That is, receiving a biological reward for successfully taking another step toward furthering the human species. The basis of B.F. Skinners’ operant conditioning, in which behavior is repeated following a pleasant consequence (Moulin, 2006). Exploring and expanding upon screen media devices as instruments for reward or punishment, humans began to conduct and repeat behaviors via positive and negative reinforcement, to the success of various types of learning. However, it was this simple concept within psychological research that led to the exploitation of social media by big business, political figures and social movements to incessantly hook, manipulate and deploy a population of users to exact their will upon the world. 

However, if action is implemented on part of the screen media user to gain back control, screen media presents an opportunity for enhancing cognitive development, so long as proper controls are then applied to include academic content and stimulate the mind. Taking back control of social media accounts is still currently an option within most screen media devices. If a screen media user silences their device to notifications and filters out which friends posts they see, particularly negative ones, this is a great first step.  Also, recognizing video, friend or product suggestions as an algorithm that don’t care about their mental health, and then filtering out the content that is based on likes from their news feed, will provide a new diverse exposure to the “real” world within the virtual one, as opposed to a monetarily influenced façade. This will help achieve a balanced cognitive intake, rational thinking and the ability to objectively analyze information as it goes viral, versus taking your friend or product suggestions word for it.

Overall, the brain is a muscle, and if it is not used to think critically and break from the excessive non-academic video content that is packed full of ad targeting and information bias, research shows that it will succumb to atrophy and information bias, or social control.  Recognizing the pitfalls of social media and non-academic content within screen media devices, and then implementing the controls of interactive learning, will help protect the physical and mental health of the developing population. As a parent, this can be accomplished by being involved and reviewing the peer reviewed literature available for best practices while using screen media devices with children. 

Review of Literature

Screen Media’s Impact on Development from a Biological Standpoint

Urbanization, technological advancements and a pandemic have all led to children spending more time indoors and in front of screens.  Research using MRI and fMRI data shows that excessive screen time is disrupting normal brain development and having long-term negative effects on the physiological development of children. Which then consequently, affects their socioemotional development as well. 

Brain studies and neuroimaging techniques. Author Chuan-Bo Weng et al. (2013) were published in The European Journal of Radiology for finding abnormal reductions in both white and gray brain matter throughout the brain hemispheres of adolescence that presented signs of forming an online gaming addiction (OGA).  A major developmental concern for the impact excessive screen media use is having on the brain and its long-term effects on human behavior. Weng used the Young’s Internet Addiction Scale (YIAS) to measure scores from adolescents presenting signs of an online gaming addiction (OGA) and then, using MRI and fMRI data, were able to analyze the microstructural changes within the brains of the OGA community and found significant reductions in brain matter. 

Weng explains that this reduction in brain matter is limiting communication across the brain’s hemispheres, particularly within the prefrontal cortex, where emotional regulation, impulse control, planning and language have critical survival roles. Weng explains that damage or disruption during the development of this brain region can often lead to mental health issues, risky behavior and a difficulty in forming or maintaining relationships. More specifically, there is a concern of impulse control, emotional response and cognitive function as Weng explains that a spotty white matter was found within the brains Insula, where we derive empathy and compassion from, and is indicative for future violent behavior (Weng et al., 2013). Ultimately, like most additions, the consequences tend to get worse as time progresses, and early intervention is the ideal solution to preventing disruptive developmental growth behaviors.   

Critical stages of neuronal development. Research on children between the ages of 0-5 suggests that excessive screen media exposure during this critical period of development can cause long-term impairments. Authors Ellyse Reus & Ian Mosley (2018) explain within the Australian Journal of Child & Family Health Nursing that controlled exposure of screen media with strict limits is exceptionally important during the 0-5 age groups development. The purpose of  the Reus & Mosley (2018) article “The health and development correlates of screen media exposure in children 0-5yrs: an integrative literature review” was to analyze and critique literature and electronic databases of completed studies on the 0-5 age group for quality and explore health correlates for an adverse health effect due to early childhood screen media exposure.  Reus & Mosley concluded that screen media exposure during critical periods of neuronal development adversely affected health and development with long-lasting negative attributes within the health correlates of obesity, sleep, cognition and socioemotional development. 

Since then however, author Sudarat Supanitayanon et al. (2020) conducted a peer reviewed pediatric research study of 274 healthy children in which were evaluated at ages 6, 12, 18 months, and 2, 3, and 4 years from birth for an early learning composite (ELC) or level of cognition.  Based on positive parenting correlates and screen media use data, Supanitayanon was able to find that “delayed introduction of screen media, appropriate screen time, and increased verbal interaction during media use in the first 2 years of life were associated with better cognitive development in preschoolers” (Supanitayanon et al., 2020, para. 4). This ultimately suggests that a balanced approach to screen media use prior to the age of two, with parental involvement and interaction is what appears to be the determining factor between screen media use having either an enhanced or adverse developmental growth effect. 

Blue light emission.  Blue light filters present a false sense of security within the practice of protecting an individual’s physiological health. As explained by Bowler & Bourke (2019), the use of blue light filters on screen media devices only limits some adverse physiological effects, such as retinal degradation explained by Barker (2011). They overall do not prevent a disruption in sleep cycles or improve sleep quality that is often impacted by the late-evening use of screen media devices. The consequences of the behavior itself, such as eye strain and arousal during late-night social media use, creates many other physiological and psychological health concerns associated with excessive screen use. Once an individual’s mind is aroused by screen media content, typical of the social networking sites, research by Bowler & Bourke indicates there is an overall greater physiological concern from the behavior, than just the physiological degradation effects attributed to the blue light emission. Of which, blue light filters often do not even completely filter out (Bowler & Bourke, 2019). Ultimately, the use of a blue light filter can be helpful for limited physiological impact but is not meant to be perceived as a cure all solution. 

Screen Media’s Impact on Development from a Behavioral Standpoint

Research indicates that excessive screen media use and its adverse health effects on physiological and psychological well-being are caused primarily by the behaviors of both the developing child and parental guardian. As human behavior surpasses recommended limits and leads to change within professional recommendations of screen use, screen media and its adverse health effects goes beyond screen time research. The behavior and academic quality controls put in place during screen media use need to be considered for both their negative and positive roles in the development of children.  

Screen time. Using a graph from The Morning Consult (2018), Statista’s Amy Watson (2019) shows that as of January 2018, parents of United States households allowed their children an average of 2 – 4 hours of screen time per day. Leaving 41% of parents answering that they allowed for 5 or more hours of screen time per day, as seen in figure 1(Statista 2019).  

Figure 1. 

Donald Shifrin (2015) of the APA, points out that while the use of screen media can be beneficial when educational, that studies show 38% of infants use smartphones as an often distraction for parents, 3rd – 12th graders report an average of 7 hours of screen time a day, and that 73% of 12-17 year-olds report having a smartphone, 24% of which state that they use it almost constantly. Shifrin (2015) further explains that parents need to watch for signs that screen media is hindering activities such as socialization or homework, and that there is a bigger need for a conversation between parents and pediatricians on how to effectively teach their children self-regulation, and to implement limits that will ultimately minimize mental health concerns and family distress. 

Psychological well-being. In a house with young children, the temptation to distract for some quiet time may come daily.  According to the article “Exhausted Parents: Sociodemographic, Child-Related, Parent-Related, Parenting and Family-Functioning Correlates of Parental Burnout.” Mikolajczak et al. (2017) explains that chronic stress among parents is leading to burnout and a collapse in the ability to cope with stress over time.  Thus, leading to an emotional detachment from their children, in which screen media often facilitates. Mikolajczak explains that socioeconomic status, single parents, and urbanized environments where children’s autonomy is limited, are all risk factors for parental burnout, and up to 36% of parents will be confronted with it (Mikolajczak, 2017). Therefore, both the parent and child will oftentimes consume themselves with unproductive media content that perpetuates emotional distance from family and friends. 

Published by the American Psychological Association, author Jean Twenge et al. (2018) wrote the article “Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology.” Through empirical study, the purpose of Twenge’s article was to determine whether the psychological well-being of United States 8th-12th graders decreased after 2012 as electronic communication became more available within smartphone technology. The methodology Twenge used was reviewing yearly national surveys from 1991-2016 that encompassed a population of 1.1 million students to determine measures of happiness, self-esteem and life satisfaction.  Included in the surveys, were measures for time spent surfing the web, texting, playing video games, and social media, versus time spent interacting or completing academic work, participating in sports, socializing in person, and attending church.  Socioeconomic variables, such as unemployment during an economic recession, were also accounted for. 

Ultimately, Twenge et al. (2018) were able to correlate the rise of smartphone technology with an overall decrease in emotional wellbeing of the adolescent population.  Of which, economic indicators were determined to be noninfluential to well-being. Students with balanced active lifestyles and low amounts of screen media use, were found to be the happiest, while students with high amounts of screen media use, reported the lowest score of psychological well-being. Clearly indicating that the excessive behavior in which screen media is being used for is not only adversely affecting the health of the developing youth, but also may be getting worse as time progresses and the technology is more readily available.  

Excessive use and depression. Mental health problems appear to be highly prevalent amongst adolescence. Stephen Houghton et al. (2018), author of “Reciprocal Relationships between Trajectories of Depressive Symptoms and Screen Media Use During Adolescence” explains that the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted mental health problems would become a leading cause of morbidity, mortality and disability amongst children and adolescents. Houghton conducted a longitudinal study and explains that 20% of adolescents will have a mental health problem each year and points to depression as being the most concerning. Given that “5-9% of adolescents are clinically depressed” and “9-16% of 14-16 year old’s experience subclinical levels of depressive symptoms” (Houghton et al., 2018, para. 2). 

Through their longitudinal study of adolescence and depressive symptoms while using various forms of screen media, Houghton et al. (2018) ultimately found there are too many environmental and socio-emotional variables to determine a causal relationship between the two.  Which is a common issue amongst all research trying to significantly correlate screen media as the cause for mental health problems.  However, Houghton emphasizes that what was significant, is that their longitudinal study found a temporal association with an increase of screen media use and increased symptoms of depression. Houghton explains this as meaning that an adolescent’s mental health could be deteriorating as screen media use increases, primarily indicating that a significant increase in screen media usage can be an indicator of a mental health crisis (Houghton et al., 2018). 

Ultimately, similar to Ivie et al. (2020) research, Houghton (2018) warned of a potential escalation of screen media use over time as being indicative of social withdrawal and could be further escalating other depressive symptoms. While neither of the researchers could definitively point to social media as the cause for depressive symptoms, given the amount of other socioemotional variables, a small but significant positive correlation between the two is enough to warrant parents into initiating conversation about potential risks and warning signs of mental health crisis. Whereas, the rapid increase of screen media use is an urgent indicator that a more immediate parental intervention is needed.

Screen media’s role in violent behavior. While screen media violence and its role in violent behavior is debated amongst professionals within various disciplines, violent media viewership, through the use of fMRI studies, has been shown to activate areas of the brain associated with negative affect (Burke, 2010). Furthermore, it is increasingly becoming a part of everyday life for every age group, due to the everchanging availability of it in the evolving information technology era that screen media facilitates.  Therefore, there is increasing concern for the over exposure to violence in developing children and a need for parents to adapt to the advancing technology with good practices. Such as strict controls to limit the viewership of violence. Studies show that their implementation will allow for proper cognitive development and assist with stopping the formation of mental health problems.

Developing children, particularly adolescents, are often left unattended to watch violent screen media, often through the act of playing violent video games, for multiple hours a day.  The act of previously watching violent screen media, such as playing violent video games prior to committing violent crimes, often gets discussed as a potential cause for the crime. However, the cause for an act of violence is typically much more complicated.  Most research finds it difficult to establish a causal relationship between watching violent screen media and committing violent crimes. Evidence, however, is mounting that screen media plays a role in the precipitation of violence, aggression and criminal behavior amongst developing children and adolescents.

There is an overall consensus amongst parents, pediatricians and society that screen media violence has a causal relationship with aggression.  According to Bushman, Gollwitzer & Cruz (2015), and their published findings in the article “There is broad consensus: Media researchers agree that violent media increase aggression in children, and pediatricians and parents concur” that 90% percent of pediatricians believe screen media causes aggression in children. A graph of their findings, as seen in figure 2, shows that the majority of society agrees and particularly distinguishes a difference between violent screen media and violent print media (Bushman et al., 2015).

Figure 2.

Perhaps some of the most compelling evidence showing that violent screen media is playing an active role in violent behavior, is the further use of MRI and fMRI data to establish strong evidence that it leads to antisocial behavior, which has also been a common precursor to violence.  Mary Burke (2010) of Psychiatric Times, and author of “The Impact of Screen Media on Children: An Environmental Health Perspective” states that excessive exposure to screen media at an early age has been independently and statistically shown to increase the likelihood of antisocial behavior, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and sleep problems.  Burke states that fMRI studies show an activation of brain regions for visual and auditory processing when viewing nonviolent television, whereas when viewing violent programs, activates areas of the brain associated with negative affect (Burke, 2010). Further explaining that gamers who spend 20 hours a week playing violent video games have brain activity patterns commonly seen in drug addicts, and that gaming may not only be addictive, but also genetically vulnerable.  Which ultimately, Burke explains, leads to a division from people that are neutral or aversive to violence (Burke, 2010). 

The impairment of cognitive development and disruptions within areas of critical brain function in children, can assist in the development of a mental illness. Which then greatly increases the likelihood of committing violence during socio-emotional development. Of all the research completed on the role violent screen media has on development, the most widely acceptable evidence comes with the inclusion of MRI and fMRI data. Specifically, when it indicates a correlation between screen media, such as that of a video game addiction presented by Weng (2013), and the physiological changes it causes within the brain. These changes, such as their impact on empathy, compassion and impulse control, are linked with violent behavior and could be considered as smoking gun evidence for making a leap from the screen to violence. 

However, critics of the theory that violent screen media is having an effect on behavior, use this as an opportunity for pointing out bias. Suggesting that individual or collective bias is often a motive for skewing violent media research, as a means to fulfil an agenda against violent media. That ultimately, the problem for determining a direct causal relationship between screen media and violent acts, is that viewing screen media violence is one variable within a broad category of variables that precipitates violence. Thus, while likely not to be ruled as the primary cause for any specific act of violence, violent screen media research will always be debated as relevant, or irrelevant, to the precipitation of it.  

Screen media as a means of social control. The Social Control Theory uses what is known about social learning, as being a process in which influences people’s emotions, thoughts and behavior, and if there is a calculated exposure to social interaction, social control can informally be deployed throughout the lifespan due to the natural human ability to observe, imitate and model behavior (Levesque, 2018). As discussed by Professor David Altheide (2013), this is accomplished through algorithms that are designed to track every location and click of the screen media users’ actions to establish a profile, and then control the content to which they are exposed to. This happens across nearly every screen media device a person owns, as within the last decade, all screen media devices are often registered and connected through a network or cloud account. This control allows social media platform owners to sell advertising spots based on each person’s individual profile and market them to the highest bidder.  

Given that privacy laws have been slow to catch up, an artificial intelligence representing big business, or even “big brother” as a means of accomplishing social control, has invaded nearly every aspect of a screen media user’s privacy to the maximum benefit of influence.  Because of this, human interest is becoming the most lucrative product for sale within the world’s biggest corporations, governments and social movements. The consequences of which are demonstrated and further perpetuated by the nightly news within screen media. Furthering the free will versus determinism debate to a near deterministic future (Moulin, 2006), as the human conscious or even subconscious, is conditioned and subliminally manipulated as screen media technology advances, at the expense of mental and physical health.

Screen Media Use for Cognitive Development 

When screen media is used for the purpose of stimulating cognitive development, joint media engagement amongst family and peers provides opportunity for neuronal pathway growth and assisted language development. Given screen medias ability to effectively present various academic topics, it is increasingly being incorporated within academic institutions as a tool for developmental growth. 

Social learning through joint media engagement. Walsh (2017) explained that JME occurs when multiple people interact through digital or even traditional media and that individuals draw upon the interaction for the purpose of making meaning. Understanding the benefits of screen media use will facilitate social learning.  Having quality learning content will be an important control for this purpose so as not to fall into social control traps of corporate advertisers within platforms such as within social media that can lead to distraction. JME can only be conducive for learning if there is meaning making content that is free of the intrusive ad campaigns often brought on by corporate sponsored shared platforms. 

Assisted language acquisition.  While excessive screen media use is often blamed as a cause for speech delay, as discussed by Pinar Zengin-Akkus (2018), due to past research showing a correlation between the two when children are left unattended for hours on end to watch non-stimulating content, research also shows speech delay is often a part of a broader condition that requires specific diagnostics to identify a speech disorder. Mobile apps to aid in the treatment of children with speech disorders are becoming more common.  To be beneficial however, as explained by Lisa Furlong (2018), the quality, reliability and easy access to them needs to be considered without allowing for unsupervised use of them. Pointing to interaction as being a key component during the acquisition of language, which is now recognized as implicit knowledge given the scientific communities findings of a genetic basis for speech disorders. Having screen media as a tool for interaction, can assist educators due to the requirement of schools providing special education services for individuals meeting the requirements under the Disabilities Education Act. 

Furlong (2018) explains that mobile applications are becoming increasingly popular and that there were approximately 5,000 options for speech related apps. However, it is a challenge to find ones that are high quality and therapeutically beneficial. Searching out apps based on specific speech disorders led to a total of 132 apps. Of which that were found, 25 were good quality and the rest were average, with only two being rated as poor quality. Furlong explains, when seeking out an app, it should be evaluated for use per any specific speech related disorder, be highly rated, easy to use and reliable. Ultimately however, research is still its infancy toward determining the full therapeutic value of speech related applications given the fast rise of the advancing technology. 

Enhanced learning opportunities within academic institutions. A balance will have to be achieved and distinguished between screen media’s roles for entertainment, social networking and academic learning before they will be implemented within all educational institutions. Author Lindsay Daugherty et al. (2014) of “Moving Beyond Screen Time: Redefining Developmentally Appropriate Technology Use in Early Childhood Education” explains that digital literacy will increasingly become important for a child to be successful in both school and society. Daugherty explains that obtaining the skills for using technology can and should already be taught within all education institutions. However, children from low income families are often unable to keep up with their advantaged peers due to a lack of access to screen media devices, software and internet. If the schools provided equipment as many state-run home school programs do, these children could obtain the means to “analyze, learn, and explore” (Daugherty et al., 2014, p. 2).

Another perspective of bringing screen media to the forefront of academic institutions, authors Steinkuehler and Duncan (2008) claim that it should be required within a globally interconnected society, explaining that the United States is in urgent need of scientific literacy and that screens can assist. Steinkuehler and Duncan state that they evaluate scientific discursive practices by observing students who are knowingly or unknowingly using the scientific method to strategically compete in active game play (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008). One major obstacle for using video games to teach scientific inquiry however, Steinkuehler and Duncan explain, is changing the perspective that all video games are merely for entertainment. MMOs tend to have simulated worlds that require complex problem solving through the interaction of multiple players who communicate through the use of avatars. The players often have to consult both on and offline manuals to research how to defeat an opponent or locate critical resources for game play. They will then deploy different strategies in an effort to complete an objective through trial and error.  Furthermore, Steinkuehler and Duncan point out, players were viewed as commonly creating excel spreadsheets, models of the data with mathematical equations and would even propose a hypothesis for testing. While Steinkuehler and Duncan do indicate that there is still more research needed, there is an opportunity to teach scientific habits of mind through using modern advancements in gaming technology.

Both Steinkuehler & Duncan (2008) and Daugherty et al. (2014) research points toward the future demanding a change in policy and funding for the further use of screen media in the classrooms. However, when doing so, factors such as whether the screen media device is integrated to include support for learning, has proper device features, able to be used with others, is mobile, and has the proper content of meaning making processes should be universally considered before action is taken so as to maximize the success rate within each school system, for every child of any socioeconomic background. 

This strategy was put to the test by Ziyi Yu (2017) with the implementation of a controlled experiment using touch screen media technology for the purpose of sports teaching. Pointing out prior studies shortcomings and a theoretical basis for using supporting technology, Yu created a touch screen multimedia teaching system and successfully deployed it for the enhancement of the experimental group. As Yu points out, the practical use of touch screen sports teaching allowed for better visualized instruction design and resulted in being superior to traditional teaching. A clear indicator that screen media can be valuable to academic institutions.

Discussion

There are many reasons why screen media is considered dangerous, primarily due to the overall excessive misuse of it for unproductive means of entertainment. However, past behaviors within our society should not be considered indicative of the future for screen media use.  While it is said that the past repeats itself, perhaps drawing a near deterministic future in which screen media will continue to significantly impair physiological and psychological development, it is not the complete picture previous screen time research concludes upon. If controls are put in place so that a dynamic interactive learning experience can be achieved without a near constant barrage of advertisement toward social control, screen media could be as instrumental to humankind in the 21st century as the invention of the wheel was for the emergence of agrarian civilization. While some may have argued that the wheel made people lazy, others likely would have argued that it maximized their daily potential. 

The goal moving forward is to not only spread awareness of the overall impact screen media is having on children during the critical stages of neuronal development and the long-term effects into adolescence and adulthood, but also that action can be taken to protect the developing population and explain how the proper use of the devices and their associated online platforms can enhance the cognitive experience at all stages of development. With the help of meta-analysis and longitudinal studies completed with MRI and fMRI data, it is imperative that a concern is voiced for the “new normal” and “stay at home environment” that 2020 has sprung upon society. As this pivotal point in history is having an impact on all human cultures and behavior towards further reliance on screen media to meet even basic needs. Using this concern to also implement a healthy way forward within a screen media driven society, for an overall balanced cognitive experience and healthy lifestyle, will be needed prior to the next leap in technological advancement that will propel humankind forward.  

While it is hard to know what screen media will look like just a few decades from now, it will be imperative that all associated risks are fully understood by all populations before its biological integration using implant technology. Company product plans, such as those presented by Elon Musk (2019) and his company Neuralink, in which intend to implant the human brain so as to communicate with computer interfaces via artificial intelligence, should be collectively researched, debated and considered by professionals within multiple disciplines for its developmental implications and ethical concerns based on prior human behaviors with new technology, before the mass media advertises it as solely beneficial. As current advancements have already been made toward biological integration, it is increasingly becoming important that screen media research and its associated use from various developmental perspectives are considered and acted upon prior to this potential leap forward in human evolution. Especially since it is such a new technology with grand developmental implications that are not fully understood by the majority of the population, let alone aware that success is being achieved toward its fruition.  

Thus, with moderation and improved behavior of screen media use for purposes both within and outside of academic learning, a healthier life balance needs to first be achieved with the advancing technology. A balance that will not only limit associated negative health correlates among children, but also improve the overall cognitive experience of the developing population and catapult humankind further into a worldwide renaissance era of instant reason and interaction. That is, if there can be a transition of power from dominant figure heads and their divisive social agendas of influence and control first, before they use screen media and associated algorithms to inflict upon the world another dark age of conflict and war. 

Therefore, the question is who will have control, and to what end, of the platforms on which the future of civilization is run. If behavioral, developmental and cognitive psychologists could partner with industrial organizational psychologists within the corporate world powers that be, perhaps future policies could be calculated and agreed upon with the corporate figure heads or heads of states to limit domineering behaviors and allow community oversight for the proper use of these platforms for social, political or otherwise influential gain. Or as best said by professor Altheide within the School of Justice and Social Inquiry, community oversight is essential for the “continued investigation and mapping of media logic across information technologies in order to clarify the reflexive relationship between communication, social interaction, and institutional orders” (Altheide, 2013, para. 1). That is, instead of endangering the population with an endless cycle of cognitive decline from an unchecked financially incentivized algorithm and artificial intelligence that is driving the current propaganda machine.

Ultimately, if change can be implemented, beginning with parents or caregivers, screen media technology can and should be used instrumentally to enhance child development in the home and within academic institutions, not impair it. Screen media can prepare and enlighten humankind now, for a future that is near certain to be run by it and its associated social platforms. If there can be a strong enough voice for proper oversight, good practices, controlled measures and means for positive interaction or JME, screen media can be used to reach humankind’s full potential, not destroy it. Particularly within the family dynamic and the developing populations cognitive development. 

 

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