The Frightening Effect Of Screen Time On The Human Imagination

Both reading and watching video change people’s imaginative powers.

Both reading and watching video change people’s imaginative powers.

Reading books stimulates the imagination better than watching videos, a study finds.

Indeed, watching stories and images on screen may serve to dull the imagination.

Like most other cognitive or physical functions, the imagination needs to be used to keep it working.

Although many have speculated that reading stimulates the imagination, while video dulls it, this is one of the first studies to find empirical evidence.

Reading vs screens

The study included over 200 people who were first presented with either film clips to watch or text to read.

Then they were asked to use their imagination to compare objects not related to the video or text.

The results showed that people’s ability to visualise was slower after they had watched a video than if they had been reading a text.

Dr Sebastian Suggate, the study’s first author, explained:

“We found that those who had been watching film clips had slightly impaired imagery for 25 seconds compared to those who had just been reading and that this did not change depending on whether they had seen fast-moving or slow-moving images on screen.

In reality, this is a very small time delay, but if you look at what this means over a longer period of time—days or years of consistently consuming images on screen—then we can see that this is actually a significant impact on the brain’s ability to mentally visualize and feel.”

TV kills the imagination

In a previous study, researchers had found much the same effect in children aged 3-9 years, but over the longer term.

Over 10 months of watching TV for between 1 and 4 hours per day, the children’s ability to visualise was reduced, suggesting it was negatively affecting their imagination.

Dr Suggate said:

“In order to produce images in the brain or mind, we rely on a number of sensory systems, and not just our ability to see.

It takes the experiences of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch to produce a response to the world around us, and our study in children suggests that passively consuming images for hours and over a long period of time without routinely stopping to do something else that tests our other sensory functions, or to simply pause their viewing to discuss what they had just seen on the television, dulls the imaginative capabilities.

In our study with adults, we see a similar effect in a short period of time, and by comparing it to reading, we can see that the brain needs to actively create mental imagery, and we appear to be able to do this better when the images have not already been given to us via film clips.”

A strong imagination is not just important for creativity, but for more mundane pursuits like planning everyday activities, relating to other people and the world around us.

Dr Suggate said:

“Some screen time is fine, but balancing this out with things like reading, interacting with other people, and exercising outdoors seems to be the best way to protect our imaginative capabilities.

It is important that we do protect it because it has a big impact, particularly on young children as their brains develop, and the concern is that we want to avoid having generations of people who struggle to see themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine alternative ways of addressing both big and small challenges.

Many social and environmental problems provide good examples of this; in many ways, we need to be able to imagine what our world was and what it will be like if we don’t do things differently.”


The study was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts (Suggate et al., 2023).

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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