To restore the health of the prefrontal cortex, people need to spend more time offline, studies show.
There is a treasure trove of research out there regarding being online and its impact on the brain, particularly scrolling through social media and interacting with people in cyberspace. In fact, the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), responsible for cognitive functioning, is often being overwhelmed by time spent online, explained Dr. Mark Rego, a Yale psychiatrist and author of Frontal Fatigue.
“With chronic stress, the PFC loses its ability to send these signals and the stress response continues unabated, even if the original stressful situation is gone,” wrote Dr. Rego in his book. What does this mean, exactly? Brain functioning is unable to return to baseline and, instead, remains stuck in ‘fight or flight.’ This is a natural response to stress. However, it becomes an unhealthy response when a person can’t relax after a perceived threat has ceased.
The result of perpetual fight or flight induced by time spent in front of a screen? Mental illness, and it has taken over much of society.
“The dynamic in which the brain cannot cope with the everyday stress of modern life is not conducive to 21st century success,” Dr. Rego wrote in an article in Psychiatric Times.
There is a wealth of research on the impact of social media use on teens and young adults, and it has been proven that excessive use can lead to mental health disorders, especially anxiety and depression. Time on electronics is also increasing among younger groups, a phenomenon that became especially apparent after the onset of the pandemic. This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “less than two hours of entertainment screen time per day for children” and discourages the “use of any screen media by children under two years of age.”
If screen time is so bad, how can one tell if their PFC has been negatively affected? When the function of the prefrontal cortex diminishes, many people experience symptoms such as “a loss of ability to pay attention; mini-bursts of short-term memory loss that result in word-finding problems and forgetting where you put things; an inability to multi-task; and loss of emotional control.”
It is obviously difficult for many Americans to turn their computers on and off whenever they want. Many now work at home and are glued to their screens for eight hours a day or more. They have no choice but to interact with colleagues, attend meetings and submit their work over the web. So, even though it has been recommended by mental health professional to disconnect, this can be easier said than done.
As far as teens are concerned, their whole lives revolve around interacting with peers in cyberspace. Whether their preference is gaming, social media or simply texting their peers, this has become the primary means of communication for today’s generation of young people. Asking them to disconnect is equatable to asking them to end their friendships altogether.
Maybe the answer isn’t total disconnection but finding more balance between life online and life offline. Taking breaks throughout the day, making a point to get outside and immerse oneself in nature, or practicing mindfulness can be incredibly healing. Scheduling social outings to encourage more face-to-face interaction can also help heal the brain.
Other ways to mend the PFC include taking on a hands-on creative endeavor, developing a fitness routine or taking up a “real world” hobby. While it can feel next to impossible to disconnect from cyberspace altogether, making a point to mind one’s mental health is vital, and moderation is key.