Can excessive screen time cause “digital dementia”?

As we move further and further into the digital age, it’s important to be aware of how the technology we use impacts our mental health and cognitive function. 

Dementia is an umbrella term that describes a decline in the ability to think and affects memory, language, and reasoning, due to changes in the brain.

Symptoms of dementia range from mild to severe and can have a significant impact on someone’s functioning and quality of life.

Some experts use the term “digital dementia” to describe cognitive changes associated with technology overuse. While digital dementia isn’t an actual condition, research does suggest that excess technology use can lead to dementia-like changes and possibly even increase dementia risk.

Below, we’ll explore more about what digital dementia is, including steps you can take to reduce the potentially harmful effects of excess screen time.

Digital dementia, a term coined by German neuroscientist and psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer in 2012, describes changes in cognition as a result of overusing technology.

Although digital dementia is not an actual diagnosable health condition, the theory that technology overuse negatively impacts cognition may have scientific merit. In fact, several studies have found a link between internet use, “screen time,” and cognitive changes.

One study from 2022 explored the impact of sedentary behaviors, including using the computer and watching TV, on overall dementia risk.

According to the results, more time spent on cognitively passive behaviors — like watching TV — led to an increased risk of dementia, regardless of physical activity levels. However, cognitively active passive activities — like using the computer — were associated with a lower dementia risk.

In another review from 2023, researchers found evidence that excess screen use negatively impacts executive functioning and working memory, among other changes, in both children and teenagers.

Digital dementia isn’t a diagnosable condition, so it’s difficult to say exactly what the symptoms are. However, as the name implies, some of the symptoms may be similar to those of dementia, such as:

  • problems with short-term memory
  • easily losing or forgetting things
  • having difficulty recalling words
  • experiencing trouble with multitasking

Similar to dementia, digital dementia may also cause changes in communication, focus, reasoning, and more. It’s also not uncommon for excess screen time to result in sleep and mood changes, which also have a significant effect on brain function.

So, here are a few steps you can take to break away from the screen and offset the negative impact of technology overuse:

  • Limit phone notifications: One way to avoid constantly being on your phone or in front of a screen is to limit the number of notifications you receive. If a certain notification isn’t urgent, consider silencing it — or getting rid of it altogether
  • Limit passive media time: This may look different depending on how you spend your time. There are apps that can limit excessive scrolling time. Or you could combine time spent watching your favorite show with using a stationary bike or set of small weights.
  • Find other things to focus on: We’re all guilty of reaching for a phone or remote when bored, but when was the last time you read a book or went for a walk? While these activities may require more effort, set yourself up for success by having a good book handy or a fun destination already picked out. 
  • Set aside time to relax and connect: Reducing your screen time doesn’t mean getting rid of it altogether. Consider setting aside a chunk of time each day to scroll, play video games, or watch TV. Setting a timer can help.

And if you’re a parent who is looking for ways to reduce your child’s screen time, start by opening up the conversation on why moderation is important. Explain that you’re also trying to limit your screen time, and practice monitoring and making changes together, as a family.

Source: Healthline