Spending too much time on your phone, computer or tablet can have negative effects on your health, but scientists have proven screens can trigger a chemical in your brain that makes you want more and more time on your devices. NBC Learn, in partnership with Centene Corporation, explains the addictive cycle of screen time and how and why you should mix it up.

Educator's resources



MORGAN RADFORD reporting: Hey there guys, I'm Morgan Radford and it's time to get healthy!

Did you know that teens spend an average of six and a half hours on screens every single day? That's about as much time as you spend at school. But it's also not by accident. Tech features like app notifications, auto play, and "likes" on social media, they’re scientifically proven to make us want more screen time.

Dr. JENNIFER HARTSTEIN: I'm Dr. Jennifer Hartstein. I'm a child adolescent and family psychologist. So screen time means any time you are in front of a screen, meaning television, computer, smart phone, tablet, video console. Screen time is a necessity. You're doing your homework on screens. We're watching TV on screens. Sometimes it's the way we're spending time with other people. Screens can be amazing ways to connect us. The problem is how much time we're spending on screens.

RADFORD: Screen time impacts everyone's brains, but especially young, developing brains like yours, because it triggers something that’s called dopamine. But what is that?

HARTSTEIN: Dopamine is the feel-good hormone neurotransmitter in your brain. And then what happens is you want it more.

RADFORD: So things like eating a sweet treat, getting to the next level on a video game, and the buzz of a new text all light up the same region of your brain, that’s called the reward center, and that’s where it releases dopamine.

HARTSTEIN: So, I'm on my screen and I'm doing something I like, and it triggers my dopamine. And then I start to get off, and I maybe get another notification. And it triggers another bit of dopamine. And I get on this dopamine loop where all I do is feel good, feel good, feel good. So when I'm not on my screens, I don't feel as good, which is why we are on screens more and more and more every day rather than less. It's like we crave more so we do more.

RADFORD: Too much screen time, it can take you away from what's happening in the real world and that can also have a negative effect on your mental and your physical health.

HARTSTEIN: We're kind of always looking over here to see what's happening on our phone instead of paying attention in class or talking to our friend or watching a movie. We just can't be present, which is really doing a disservice to us in how we manage our lives.

RADFORD: So, even the light from your phone screen, that can trick your brain, altering how you sleep.

HARTSTEIN: The blue light of the phone stimulates your brain, making it much harder for you to get good solid rest at night. It's important to shut the phone off about an hour before you go to bed so that you can really get the rest you need to be more productive the next day.

RADFORD: You probably spend more time than you realize on screens. But there are apps and settings on your phone that can track your screen time and help you set limits for yourself, and stick to them.

HARTSTEIN: So on the iPhone, built into the operating system, there's a screen time option which shows you how many minutes a day you're on your phone and breaks it down into what apps you've been using. And here it tells me that today I've been on my phone an hour and 26 minutes, and if I click on that, it actually tells me how my time has been spent today, so I've been on messages for 25 minutes, and Facebook for 14 minutes, and mail for 10 minutes and it breaks down for me where I've spent my time.

RADFORD: All right, so here are a few other easy ways to find a healthy balance with screen time. Avoid multitasking on screens, especially when you’re doing your homework. Just sit down and focus on what you're doing and what’s in front of you. dDn't check your phone and you'll get your work done faster and your brain will thank you later. Also, pay attention to what you're actually doing on those screens. Are you sitting there and picking up your phone and mindlessly scrolling? Or do you have a real sense of purpose? If you try to balance the time you spend on screens with the time you spend off of them, you'll make the most of your time in both cases, and you’ll feel better.

Tags in this article

Mental Health, Get Healthy NBC News Learn