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Study: Too much screen time harmful on molecular level

ASU study first to look at gut health, screen time connection

A couple seen from behind, seated on a couch while streaming a movie on a laptop.
March 08, 2022

If you don’t work with your hands, chances are you stare at a screen most of the day. Then at the end of the day, you go home and stare at a bigger screen to relax. In between the two, you probably steal glances at a tiny screen.

Obesity, sleep problems, chronic neck and back problems, depression and anxiety have all been associated with spending too much time staring at screens.

Now, for the first time, a study shows that screen time is harmful on a biological and physical level.

“It's a really challenging problem because so much of our society is dependent on these devices with screens,” said Corrie Whisner, lead author of the study and an associate professor in Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions.

Several studies have tried to correlate screen time and mental health, but this is the first study to examine the effects of high screen time at the molecular level.

The study found high screen time is “significantly” associated with Type I diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome and various manifestations of inflammatory bowel.

The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no more than one hour of screen time per day for children 5 and under. There is no consensus on a safe amount of screen time for adults, but connections between well-being and digital technology use show harmful effects on individuals engaging in more than two hours of daily screen time.

“Screen time really matters for internal metabolic processes that we often don't think about,” Whisner said. “I think most of human nature is really driven towards instant gratification and what we do. And we don't think about how just everyday life really adds up and has these cumulative effects on health. And so knowing that microbes respond to our behavior and what we do matters for them as much as what they do matters for us, that we can think that, OK, well, if I don't care about screen time for myself, maybe I could think about what it's actually doing for all these tiny little partners that share a body space with me.”

The study examined 60 college students, collecting data on nutrition intake, screen time and physical activity. Researchers collected fecal samples to gather biological data.

With screen use rising in all age groups, there’s more public and scientific interest in the effects.

“This work is the first investigation of the effects of screen time at the molecular level,” said co-author Paniz Jasbi, a doctoral candidate in exercise and nutritional sciences at ASU. “Our results indicate that individuals with more than 75 minutes of daily screen time had microbiome and metabolome profiles consistent with obesity, Type I diabetes, myocardial infarction, chronic fatigue syndrome and a host of digestive disorders."

Top image: Courtesy FrankundFrei/Pixabay

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