We all know excessive screen time is probably not good for young developing brains. The immediate visual feedback, the glowing bright light, the flood of constant stimuli. Then, the want for more and more, the negotiation about how much is allowed, and the agitation when it is taken away. So how bad is it?
Screen time is an unavoidable reality of childhood today. With devices at home and at school, kids of every age are spending hours and hours a day in front of tablets and smartphones. According to this article, 38 percent of all children less than two years old had used a mobile device for a media activity in 2015. More notably, 80 percent of 2-4 year olds and 83 percent of 5-8 year olds used screens. And that was two years ago. The numbers and hours are only growing.
While screens do provide many tools at your child's fingertips, they also commonly serve as a child-occupier in a restaurant or waiting room, entertainment for car rides, a cure for melt-downs, and a way to keep your child quiet to avoid judgement from other parents. I understand why parents do it. I really do. Parenting is harder than any other job, especially in such a judgmental and competitive world. But the repercussions of using the digital babysitter too much are more major than an eye-roll from the person watching your child scream.
Brain imaging research shows that when a child is on a screen, it affect the brain's frontal lobe (which controls executive functioning, decision-making, and impulse control) in the same way cocaine does. Technology is so hyper-arousing that it raises dopamine levels, the feel-good neurotransmitter involved in addiction. Doctors and researchers have even started calling screens the "digital drug" and "electronic cocaine" for developing brains. When every finger swipe triggers a response of colors, shapes, and sounds, a child’s brain responds joyfully with dopamine. Habituating to this immediate feel-good stimuli response leads to always preferring or wanting it.
The activation of dopamine also initiates adrenalin and the stress response system. This is commonly known as "fight or flight" when the nervous system reaches a hyper-aroused state: the heart beats fast, blood pressure rises, hormones flood the body, digestion stops. You may feel this when coming across a large growling dog in the woods, unsure if it is going to attack you. Or when you take one bad step hiking and almost slip down the hill. Or right before a public speaking engagement and you start sweating and your heart races. Being in this state inhibits a child's ability to deal with normal stress and regulate during daily life. The child may lash out, scream, talk back, call names, cry uncontrollably, run away without regard to safety, kick, bite, or throw things. That is their hyper-aroused nervous system talking. The less time a child spends in that stress-inducing hyper-aroused state, the better. That means turning off screens more often, and allowing a child's nervous system to recover and reach a baseline resting level necessary for regulation and self-control.
Long term health risks
If a child is spending a lot of time on screens, consequently hours a day in a prolonged hyper-aroused state, the stress response system stays on and drains the body's other functions. We know that long term stress most commonly leads to adrenal fatigue, cardiovascular issues, high blood pressure, and immune system suppression. Other health issues may include constipation and digestive issues, cold sores, jitteriness, and sweats. Clinical studies also suggest that screens may increase depression, anxiety, and aggression in children. We are talking about young developing brains, here. Anything we can do to keep ourselves and our children out of "fight or flight" as much as possible is worth the effort, since our long-term health may depend on it.
Poor social intelligence
As mentioned, the frontal lobe is highly impacted by screens. Well, a healthy frontal lobe is also important for interpreting social interactions, understanding nonverbal cues, and reading unspoken communication like facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. The most crucial time for frontal lobe development is during early childhood, and it is dependent on real face-to-face interpersonal interactions in the real world. If a child is spending lots of time in the digital world, his or her ability to recognize emotions in themselves or others could be inhibited. That means a really hard time making friends. A study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that sixth-graders who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions, and computers.
Tablets and phones are the ultimate short cut. They enable laziness, for both the child and the parent. A parent no longer has to read a story to their child. Instead, a smartphone-told story will spoon feed the words and images. The young reader no longer has to process a parent's voice into words, visualize the pictures, or exert any thinking skills to follow the story line. The device does the thinking for the child, and the reading for the parent. Or consider handwriting. If it is really hard for a child, he/she can use speech to text for writing with their personal school-issued tablet. That child misses out on mastering foundational visual-motor integration and spatial relations skills. They can shortcut and we no longer have to make the effort to teach it. No one has to work hard. Perfect.
Three hours of watching YouTube Kids and three hours spent in an interactive educational app that promotes critical thinking are not the same. The first promotes passive consumption and a zombie brain, which can stunt cognitive thinking skills. If screens are going to be used, it is important to use “minds-on” activities that require intellectual thinking and manipulation of the information. Even better would be using media that encourages a child to relate the content to something in their life, or to have a dialog between parent and child about the concepts and ideas within media content.
What makes tablets and iPhones so great (the dozens of possibilities at your fingertips, processing multiple actions simultaneously) is exactly what young brains do not need for long periods of time. It is hugely important we think about how, and how much, it is used. Once a child is over the age of two, consider an hour of recreational play with tablets and smartphones each day, with a focus on apps that help develop coordination, quick reactions, and language skills. Check out this list, or this website for reviews, of educational apps and websites for children.
As with any other tools or toys available to your developing child, technology use should stay in moderation and not stand in for real-world face time. Screens should never replace the priceless moments spent climbing trees, finger painting, building snowmen, having a lemonade stand, or eating dinner as a family on a random Tuesday night. Kids don't get enough time to do those things as it is!
What are your thoughts on screen time? I would love for you to share your ideas.
I am going to get off of my screen now.
meet the blogger
Austen is a pediatric occupational therapist with experience in schools, early intervention, and private clinic settings. She now runs her own private practice in Portland, OR specializing in movement based learning techniques. This blog's mission is to educate and empower parents and children by sharing insights into the complexities of learning and development.