Screen Time, the Brain, Privacy and Mental Health

Published: April 24, 2018

Author: Norman Doidge

Key Points

  • Our 24/7 internet technologies and screen time, which now take up the majority of most people’s waking hours, are changing our brains, are addictive and, in many cases, are affecting mental health in negative ways, especially that of young people.
  • These technologies undermine privacy in far subtler ways than people are aware of — in ways that undermine the development of the brain and the psychological structure of the self.
  • Privacy is not merely a “value among many” in liberal democracy, but is rather, arguably, the most important foundation of liberty. Protection of privacy is thus necessary for both individual mental and brain health, and the health and survival of liberal democracy.

Is Addiction to Screen Time Merely a Metaphor?


hen most people think of “the internet” and “the brain” they often speak of “the addictive properties” of life online. But is this true? Or is it merely a metaphor, or a way of saying, people are spending too much time online, or are “too dependent” on screens? This is especially important to sort out for public policy because, unlike other addictions that are generally opposed by mainstream institutions, screen time is being pushed by governments, educators and businesses. Google’s Project Loon is working on bringing wireless to the four billion people not yet online by using balloons in the stratosphere to carry signals to the remotest parts of the planet. Soon everyone on our planet will be subject to these processes.

The problem of addiction arises because the chemistry and wiring of the brain can be manipulated. The latest brain science shows that the brain’s structure can change and is quite unlike that of a hardwired computer. It is, in fact, “neuroplastic.” Neuroplasticity is the property of the brain that allows it to change its structure and function in response to mental experience. Approximately 60,000 articles on the new science of plasticity show this. This plasticity can be used for good — in clinical situations where there has been brain damage of various kinds — but it can also be used to cause harm, intentionally or unintentionally. Addictions are so hard to beat because they alter the brain neuroplastically.

This science of neuroplasticity is relatively new, but we have known that there are all sorts of behavioural addictions — gambling, online porn, shopping — that take hold because they trigger the same areas of the brain as drugs. Until recently, people have been naively unsuspecting of digital addiction. That is in part because each addiction — cocaine, heroin, alcohol, video games — has a slightly different form and effect, so it takes a while to recognize any new addiction as such. But it is also because digital technology has been especially good at changing our brains without us being aware. Digital technologies are uniquely “compatible” with the brain because both are electric and also work at high speeds. Marshall McLuhan figured this out. He pointed out that all media extend us: the microphone extends the voice; the radio extends the ear; and the computer extends the brain’s processing power. In 1969, he said, “Now man is beginning to wear his brain outside his skull, and his nerves outside his skin” (McLuhan and Zingrone 1995). At the time, it seemed like one of his more provocative aphorisms. But few believed the brain was plastic and that media could literally work by connecting in some way to and rewiring our neurons.1

Digital technology has been especially good at changing our brains without us being aware.

The average person is now using screens, by some estimates, as much as 10 hours a day. It is arguably our single biggest type of waking activity. While for some, on the lower end of that, “addiction” may just be a metaphor meaning “too dependent on” or “a compulsion,” for many, the term “addiction” is literally true. We know this because they show all the signs of addiction: compulsivity, loss of control of the activity, craving, psychological dependence and using even when harmful. Everywhere we see people who must check their phones every few moments — according to New York University Professor Adam Alter’s book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, the average office email goes unanswered for only six seconds (Alter 2017, 109). That is compulsive. People check while driving — that is harmful — and feel agitation when they cannot. They stay up late, get stuck on their computers and then cannot sleep. Online porn is especially addictive (Doidge 2007; Voon et al. 2014; Banca et al. 2016).

Addicts always underestimate the time spent on the activity because they are under a spell. If we think of addiction only in quantitative terms, we are inclined only to worry about, “Am I spending too much time online?” But we can also think about it in qualitative terms. Our brain is sculpted by whatever we do repeatedly, and 10 hours a day also drives huge qualitative changes. The most important factor in any technology is what it does to our brains. In this case, the qualitative terms include our plummeting attention spans, patience, memory capacities or how social media is creating insecurity, changing our brain maps. This is where significant mental health issues arise.

These changes are happening so quickly in large part because behavioural psychologists and behavioural neuroscientists, whose focus is not therapeutic, but on manipulating behaviour, were hired by the thousands by big tech to capture our attention; they do so in a way that soon creates craving and anxiety if we interrupt computer applications, so they ultimately addict “users.” James Williams, the former Google strategist, said in The Guardian: “The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine human will.” (Williams quoted in Lewis 2017).  The scientists were effective in doing so because they came from an academic tradition that had mastered moulding complex behaviours incrementally by giving animals rewards. That original work discovered important things about learning and even how to treat phobias and aspects of anxiety.

But working in the computer world, behaviourists now guide software engineers to layer each new pop-up or message or interaction with “juice” and clickbait — colour or novel stimuli — that connect to the brain’s “orienting reflex” so that we involuntarily turn our attention to that thing. That reflex also triggers chemicals that put the brain in a state that maximizes our readiness to attend to that new thing. So, when something novel appears, it is pure neural “bling.” You cannot not look at it. These scientists are the true masters of the art of distraction. We look because the brain circuitry they are manipulating evolved over millions of years to make us reorient our interest to something novel, because it might be a predator, prey — our next meal — or a mate. Then, if a quick reward is attached — such as buying a product with a click, a seductive image, a “like” or even reading that some rival has just been humiliated — dopamine, another chemical, is released, consolidating that circuit. Our brain reward centre lights up and we feel a thrill. These behaviourists carefully engineer the timing of the stimuli they present. Neurons that fire together wire together, so that over time, links are moulded and we form new circuits and get addicted. Data gathered from our keystrokes can be used to further addict us, in a tailor-made way, and sold to advertisers and even to politicians, who use it to personalize their message to us, and to get us to buy whatever they are selling.

The Necessity of Privacy for Psychological Development, and Privacy and Online Life

These new technologies are not only addicting; they are influencing psychological development. Think of what is now a common observation: a young teenager is obsessively using his phone in the company of others while people are trying to speak with him. Then, his parents limit that behaviour by taking away his phone, and he is unable to calm himself for an hour or two. He gets agitated, may cry, and is in real psychological pain and having a “meltdown.” New terms have co-evolved with these new technologies, to describe the anxieties they create. The distressed teenager is experiencing a “FOMO” attack — the fear of missing out — if not constantly connected to social media. This experience is now very common, and is a new kind of social-anxiety neurosis.

It is the surface manifestation of a far deeper problem, the very fragile identity development we are now seeing in young people, and a new incapacity to be alone. This problem is in part related to the unintended consequence of people exposing their lives, and their privacy, online.

As everyone now knows, search engines and websites such as Facebook are “free” because their commercial model is often based on extracting from us whatever personal information they can and selling it to others who want to know something about us (but who do not always want to advertise that they are doing so). These services are “free” because the real product they sell is our own personal data. The sites are thus designed to create forums that encourage young people to constantly disclose preferences and “likes,” which can be “scraped” and harvested and sold. Justin Rosenstein, the young tech executive who created the “like” feature now deeply regrets having done so, because of its negative psychological effects. The result is that matters once thought private are increasingly public. This is a problem because privacy and mental health are inextricably linked, especially for the young.

All people need periods of privacy to form a self and an identity, a task not completed until at least the late teens. Having an autonomous, spontaneous self is the result of a long psychological process where you have time to “step back” from the crowd, and from your parents, to reflect. It requires time to let that self — your true feelings, your own quirky, uncurated reactions — emerge, spontaneously. But the new smartphones foster around-the-clock enmeshment with parents, and the world, and hamper individuation, the process of becoming a unique individual, because children are overly connected to parents and peers. And peer groups at that age can be Lord of the Flies cruel — and often love to mercilessly hunt down, expose and denounce the eccentricities of emerging individuals.

The “wisdom of crowds” — so often praised on the internet — is overrated; many crowds are far more regressive mentally and emotionally — and stupider — than the individuals who make them up. Kids know this, but lacking a solid sense of self, still long for the mob’s approbation and are terrified of its censure.

Smartphones foster 24/7 enmeshment and, because young people are overly connected to parents and peers, may hinder the process of individuation. (Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic /

And so they keep checking for and fishing for “likes,” and now are compulsively virtue signalling that they “like all the right things” and are “for all the right causes” to avoid being disliked, instead of developing actual virtue. Fear is one reason that virtue signalling is our chief vice. Social media is a 24/7 hall of mirrors, with everyone watching themselves — and everyone else — and making comparisons, all the time. This hugely exacerbates the ordinary painful self-consciousness, insecurity, narcissistic vulnerability and drama of young people’s lives. How can anyone not become thin-skinned living in a round-the-clock panopticon of peers, all competing with each other for attention in an electronic colosseum? Depression has increased since 2005, most rapidly among people aged 12 to 17 (Weinberger et al. 2017).2 That is not all caused by screens, but with 10 hours a day spent looking at screens, it is a factor. Recently leaked documents show that Facebook told advertisers it can now track teenagers who feel “insecure,” “anxious,” “nervous,” “worthless,” “stupid” and “useless” (Levin 2017). The purpose was clearly to exploit these troubled teenagers’ data by selling it to businesses that could further exploit their depression.

One of the reasons there is so much depression is that the online world is conducive to social insecurity. Everyone knows that social media is a world of show: masks and advertisements for yourself. It develops what psychoanalysts call the persona, a false self (Winnicott 1965) or facade in which one is just playing a role to impress others. But young people know they cannot live up to that role and therefore fear they are imposters. It also teaches young people precisely the wrong way out of the mess: grow your vanity. Post selfies of yourself in your underwear on Snapchat; airbrush your opinions to get likes.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the French philosopher, pondered the soul of the modern bourgeois as affected by social life. He observed — as beautifully summarized by Allan Bloom (1979, 5) — that the bourgeois “is the man who, when dealing with others, thinks only of himself, and on the other hand, in his understanding of himself, thinks only of others. He is a role player.” That is many young people today.

One might ask, why, if this world exacerbates young peoples’ insecurities, do they keep returning to it? Because that is the world they know — and because it has been engineered, by adults, many with scientific training, to have that shiny, irresistible surface. And this is the marvel that the “grown-ups” in their midst, whom they trust, have created for them, and given their blessing to, by establishing a huge infrastructure to bring it to them 24/7. But you see what it hides when you take it away. The children and teenagers become extraordinarily anxious when they do not have their phones, like that proverbial teenager having a meltdown when they cannot access their phone. This is because it leaves them alone with themselves, and their own minds. They lack the capacity to be alone. This desperate neediness will put them at risk of forming suboptimal relationships going forward.  

Silicon Valley has relied on the fact that many, who do not understand these issues, have been willing to sell their privacy so cheaply, for the convenience of “free services.” Furthermore, one of the problems in a mass communications-based society is that we develop mass tastes, and the meat grinder of globalization further homogenizes us. The more similar we become, the more interchangeable and expendable we feel. We do not feel we matter as individuals. So, for the insecure among us, it is nice to know someone is watching, someone is taking notes, tracking our irrelevant existence online! Thus, the new surveillance technologies create an appetite for themselves.

The Effects of Screens on Right Hemisphere Development and Emotional Development in Early Childrearing

One of the most profound problems is how these technologies are changing the brains of very young children who cannot speak. These new technologies over-enmesh (as we have seen) but also disconnect at the same time. Preschool teachers report that children are making less eye contact than they used to (Doidge and Balsillie 2018). Why might this be?

In the first two years of life, a big brain task is wiring up the right hemisphere modules that allow us to read other people’s faces to learn about their emotions and, in turn, about our own. This is learned by the rapid-fire exchange of glances between an infant and its mother when there is so time spent much holding and gazing into each other’s eyes. The baby swallows milk, grimaces, mother sees it and unconsciously makes the same face back — she mirrors the baby — showing the baby the distress it is expressing, then sweetly says, “There, there, honey, the milk went down the wrong passage, you’ve upset in your tummy, let me burp you. You’ll feel better.” Now, that feeding interaction does more than soothe the baby. It actually teaches the baby about emotions, that facial expressions show emotions and, ultimately, that you can read the internal states of others (Doidge 2007). That is how we learn about other minds. The same happens when a baby smiles: a healthy adult cannot not smile back. You need thousands of those exchanges to develop that emotion-reading right hemisphere, and these exchanges, when they happen, occur very fast. If you are not paying close attention, you miss the baby’s smile, or grimace, and your face will not mirror the right emotion back. Over 80 studies by Edward Tronick and colleagues show that when the parent does not mirror in real time, the baby gets extremely anxious and distressed. If the face is “still” when it should move, babies become extremely upset (Mesman, IJzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg 2009).

Even having a phone that is off within reach lowers one’s cognitive capacity.

When parents are distracted, either by a screen or even waiting for a message — i.e., when they are multitasking — they are not giving the undivided attention required to wire up the brain in this period. In brain terms, infants need parents bonded to them so closely that they will make the requisite sacrifices of attention during this critical period of development, when the right hemisphere of the brain is at its most plastic.

Unfortunately, we are slipping into a new kind of split-attentional-neglect in this period, because increasingly, parents, although physically present, are psychologically online. A large University of Texas at Austin study (Ward et al. 2017) shows that since people are so wired into their phones, even having a phone that is off within reach lowers one’s cognitive capacity, because it “still steals your attention.” If living in virtual reality means living in something that is a simulacrum of reality, we might say that we, by being psychologically online, are making ourselves into virtual parents.

Limiting screen time helps, but only partially. Even if one limits one’s child’s screen time to what one thinks is high-level educational television, if their school is pushing computers and pushing down attention spans, that is way more important than a hundred hours of Sesame Street. One needs only read McLuhan to understand how the negative cognitive effects of a medium can far outweigh any advantage brought by having some high-level content in that medium. He showed that electronic media, which come at us “all at once,” gradually undermine linear thinking, and interest in the linear progression of logical arguments, something that we are seeing in our deteriorating public discourse.  

Privacy as the Basis of Liberal Democracy

This new generation, which has never known much privacy, is understandingly indifferent to its loss. Unfortunately, they, and many adults, do not understand that there can be no liberal democracy without privacy.

The whole idea of liberal democracy, going back to John Stuart Mill, is that the liberty of the individual is our best bulwark against authoritarianism, and the tyranny of the democratic majority or government, because they have such power, or numbers, or wherewithal, and historically seek to dominate others and determine how they must live.

Liberal democracy is thus the form of government that is expressly designed to protect the individual’s liberty against that authoritarianism. It does so by dividing life into a limited public sphere, for government, and a private sphere, where government cannot infringe and which it is also duty-bound to protect. It is the idea of the private sphere that made us into a free people.

Common sense assumes that “privacy” is, by definition, a personal matter, and thus, when individuals click “yes” to terms of agreement that sell their privacy cheaply to internet providers and companies, it is that isolated individual’s decision. And in the short term, that may well be the case, but over time, a society of individuals that do not understand the relationship between privacy and liberty is one that is at risk of losing the latter.

Our new technologies, as currently organized, are creating a generation indifferent to privacy, and giving governments, businesses and others tools to monitor it. And privacy monitored is privacy destroyed.

Copyright © Norman Doidge 2018. This essay is published under a licence from the author.


1 Doidge (2007; 2015) shows how this is indeed the case.
2 See also

Works Cited

Alter, Adam.  2017. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Banca, Paula, Laurel S. Morris, Simon Mitchell, Neil A. Harrison, Marc N. Potenza and Valerie Voon. 2016. “Novelty, conditioning and attentional bias to sexual rewards.” Journal of Psychiatric Research 72 (January): 91–101.

Bloom, Allan. 1979. “Introduction.” In Emile or On Education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Doidge, Norman. 2007. The Brain That Changes Itself. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

———. 2015. The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

Doidge, Norman and Jim Balsillie. 2018. “Can we ever kick our smartphone addiction? Jim Balsillie and Norman Doidge discuss.” The Globe and Mail, February 17.

Lewis, Paul. 2017. “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia.” The Guardian, October 6.

Levin, Sam. 2017. “Facebook told advertisers it can identify teens feeling ‘insecure’ and ‘worthless.’” The Guardian, May 1.

McLuhan, Eric and Frank Zingrone, eds. 1995. “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan.” In Essential McLuhan, 264-65. Toronto, ON: Anansi.

Mesman, Judi, Marinus H. van IJzendoorn and Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg.  2009. “The many faces of the Still-Face Paradigm: A review and meta-analysis.” Developmental Review 29 (2): 120–62.

Voon, Valerie, Thomas B. Mole, Paula Banca, Laura Porter, Laurel Morris, Simon Mitchell, Tatyana R. Lapa, Judy Karr, Neil A. Harrison, Marc N. Potenza and Michael Irvine. 2014. “Neural Correlates of Sexual Cue Reactivity in Individuals with and without Compulsive Sexual Behaviours. PLOS, July 11.

Ward, Adrian F., Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy and Maarten W. Bos. 2017. “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2 (2).

Weinberger, A. H., M. Gbedemah, A.  M. Martinez and D. Nash. 2017. “Trends in depression prevalence in the USA from 2005 to 2015: widening disparities in vulnerable groups.” Psychological Medicine, October 12.

Winnicott, D. W. 1965. “Ego distortion in terms of true and false self.” In The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development, 140–57. New York, NY: International Universities Press.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Norman Doidge, M.D., is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author of The Brain That Changes Itself and The Brain’s Way of Healing. He is on the research faculty at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and on the faculty at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry.

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