Discover more from The Multilevel Mailer
Book Review: Screen Damage by Michel Desmurget
The Dangers of Digital Media for Children
Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children by Michel Desmurget is a highly informative and thought-provoking book that delves deep into the effects of screen time on the developing brain. With a vast array of studies and research findings, Desmurget makes a compelling case that excessive screen time can have long-lasting adverse effects on cognitive, emotional, and social development, especially for children and adolescents.
As someone who spends a substantial amount of time in front of a screen, I was immediately intrigued because my dissertation research tests the exposure-response modeled relationship between mobile digital technology or social media use and suicide-related behaviors mediated by adolescent victimization (e.g., bullying, cyberbullying, physical violence, sexual abuse, etc.) and moderated by depression or depressive symptomatology in adolescents using machine learning algorithmic models to predict suicide risk severity. Recently, after hearing extensively about the dangers of too much screen time 1, 2, and 3, I was eager to learn or read some of the neuroscience behind this phenomenon and what parents can do to protect their children.
From the beginning, Desmurget clarifies that this book is not about demonizing technology or suggesting that we should return to a world without screens. Instead, he argues that we need to be keenly aware of the adverse effects that screens can have on our physical, psychological, and social well-being, particularly when it comes to children and adolescents. Desmurget is a neuroscientist with over 25 years of experience in brain plasticity and cognitive development. One of the most compelling aspects of the book is the amount of research presenting support his claims, and he draws on his expertise to provide readers with a comprehensive overview of the latest research on the effects of screen time on the brain.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, both sexes substantially intensified their screen time. However, boys use social media less frequently; they spend far more time playing video games and viewing YouTube videos than girls. Males are also struggling, as Richard Reeves demonstrated and as I will discuss in a future essay, although their issues differ from those of girls. Boys are failing to develop into socially competent and ambitious men, despite rises in anxiety, despair, and suicide, as Jonathan Haidt demonstrated in a recent essay and as the Adolescent Mood Disorders Collaborative Review demonstrates.
Desmurget begins by debunking the myth that screen time is harmless and argues that we must take the impact of screen time on our brains seriously. He draws on countless studies from various fields, including neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and pediatrics, to demonstrate how screens can impact our brains and behavior. For instance, Desmurget cites research showing how excessive screen time can lead to various physical health problems, such as obesity, poor sleep quality, and eye strain. He also explains how screens can affect our mental health, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder. And perhaps most alarmingly, he shows how screens can damage our social skills, impairing our ability to read facial expressions, recognize emotions, and form meaningful relationships.
Desmurget presents this research clearly and compellingly throughout the book, using real world examples to illustrate his points. One of the strengths of Desmurget's ability to explain complex scientific concepts and findings in a clear and accessible way to non-experts makes this book a valuable resource for anyone who wants to understand the impact of screens on our lives. He uses anecdotes and real world examples to illustrate his points, making the book engaging and relatable for many readers. The book’s division is into three (3) parts.
The first part provides an overview of the impact of screens on children and adolescents. Desmurget highlights the detrimental effects of excessive screen time on brain development, including decreased attention span, poorer memory, and lower academic achievement. He also provides evidence that suggests that excessive screen time can lead to addiction, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. While primarily focused on the impact of screens on children, Desmurget also touches on how screens can affect adults. He acknowledges that many of the same risks apply to adults and that we need to be just as mindful of screen use as children or adolescents. He also discusses how screens can impact our work productivity, relationships, and overall quality of life.
The second part of the book explores the effects of screens on adult brains and provides a comprehensive approach to the topic of usage time with digital technology devices. Desmurget argues that while the brains of adults are more resilient than children, excessive screen time may exert adverse effects on cognitive and emotional development, including the impact on users’ sleep and physical health. He also cites research showing that excessive screen time can lead to increased anxiety, decreased empathy, and drastic social skill development declines. Desmurget further thoroughly discusses the impact of different types of screens, including television, smartphones, and video games. This breadth of coverage makes the book valuable for anyone interested in screen time and brain development.
The book's final part provides practical advice on minimizing the adverse effects of screen time. One of the book's most compelling sections is a discussion of how explaining the potential addictiveness of screens is that screens activate similar neurological reward centers as illicit drugs and other addictive substances, possibly leading to cycles of compulsive usage that are extremely difficult to disrupt or break. Likewise, Desmurget acknowledges that such a challenge is global, where screens are ubiquitous and often necessary for school, work, and social connections. Still, he also offers strategies for parents to help their children develop healthier habits and relationships with screens, such as modeling healthy behavior, establishing clear rules and consequences, and encouraging alternative activities such as engaging in daily physical activity and promoting face-to-face interactions. Desmurget emphasizes the importance of establishing healthy screen habits from a young age and suggests that parents should limit their children's screen time to no more than two hours per day. He further suggests that adults should be mindful of their screen time and try to disconnect from screens at certain times of the day.
Desmurget acknowledges that screens can positively affect cognitive development in certain circumstances, such as when used for educational purposes. However, he also is careful to recognize the limitations of the studies he cites, and he avoids making sweeping generalizations or drawing conclusions not supported by the evidence. One potential weakness of the book is its heavy focus on the adverse effects of screen time. Another weakness of the book is its somewhat prescriptive tone. Desmurget is clear in his message that excessive screen time is harmful and that we must take action to minimize its impact. While this message is essential, some readers may feel that Desmurget’s recommendations for effectively reducing screen time are overly prescriptive. For example, he suggests that parents limit their children's screen time to less than two (<2) hours per day, which may be difficult or unrealistic for some families.
Overall, the book is a valuable and informative resource that provides a comprehensive overview of the impact of screen time on brain development. Desmurget's expertise and accessible writing style make the book an engaging, thought-provoking, and informative read that provides a much-needed perspective on the impact of screens on our lives. Desmurget's research-based approach and practical advice make this book a valuable resource for parents, educators, and anyone who wants to develop a healthier relationship with screens. While some of the information presented can be alarming, Desmurget ultimately offers a message of hope, emphasizing that it is possible to develop healthier screen habits and protect ourselves and our children from the adverse effects of too much screen time.
Note to readers: This book review is a guest post from Mr. Aaron Cromar, who reached out to me on social media to discuss shared concerns about how rigor and scholarship in the Academy are being degraded by the diversity, equity, & inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy and more generally how high-quality graduate scholarship in the social sciences is being eroded by radical progressive ideologies (e.g., critical social justice ideology). In a continuing effort to provide undergraduate and graduate students who reach out to me to showcase their work and views, I suggested he author this current book review given our shared research interests around how social media may influence adolescent mental health.
He is the author of the Substack ME Research and a Ph.D. candidate and instructor faculty at the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University. Aaron’s research focuses on the exposure-response relationships between technology/social media use and suicide-related behaviors in adolescents and emerging adults using mediated-moderated paths and machine learning analytics. Founder of Modernist Economist. Husband and Dad to two exceptional children.
Thanks for reading The Multilevel Mailer! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.