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Screen Time – Not So Good For a Lifetime

Friday, August 25, 2017

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a friend. She recounted her visit the previous weekend to a large metropolitan museum. As she and her husband wandered about the dinosaur, mummy, and gem exhibits, they saw several families with children. The overwhelming majority of the kiddos’ eyes were glued to smartphones and tablets. This was true for toddlers in strollers and hunched over, bored to be with mom and dad, teens. My friend’s description of the modern day scene made me think of my weekly trips to the grocery store. I routinely see toddlers in grocery cart seats swiping their pudgy fingers across a screen oblivious to the real world around them. It begs the question, what is all this screen time doing to our children? To us? While the jury is out about all the long-term ramifications, the evidence is mounting that early childhood screen time literally can affect the brain for life and continued use upsets healthy social, emotional, and physical development.

The rapidly growing brain is very sensitive to input and interaction between birth and the age of three. During this critical period, the child needs lots of interaction with the world to develop all the various parts of the brain. Playing, reading, talking, singing, and exploring are crucial for the development of problem solving, attention span, imagination, and positive social interactions. According to Liraz Margalit, in her article, “What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids’ Brains,” tablets and iPhones are exactly what the brain does not need – too many fast-paced actions all at the same time. Margalit comments, “Tablets are the ultimate shortcut tools: Unlike a mother reading a story to a child, a smartphone-told story spoon feeds images, words, and pictures all at once to a young reader. Rather than having to take the time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualize complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a story line, kids who follow stories on their smartphones get lazy. The device does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.”

Victoria Dunckly, M.D., author of Reset Your Child’s Brain, goes so far as to say screen time is disturbing physiological development that in turn creates mood disturbances. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, she writes that whether there exists a true underlying diagnosis (depression, bipolar, ADHD), “successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics for several weeks to allow the nervous system to reset.” Dr. Dunckley lists the following six physical reasons electronics tend to produce mood disturbance:

1. Screen time disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock.

Because light from screen devices mimics daytime, it suppresses melatonin, a sleep signal released by darkness. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize the body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. In addition, high arousal does not permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.

2. Screen time desensitizes the brain’s reward system.

Many children are “hooked” on electronics, and in fact, gaming releases so much dopamine—the “feel-good” chemical—that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine use. However, when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. This sets the scene for addiction. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation. Even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.

3. Screen time produces “light-at-night.”

Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. In fact, animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal is not looking at the screen.

4. Screen time induces stress reactions.

Screen time whether it be the news or a violent video game can cause acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress. Stress produces changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression—creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyper-arousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area responsible for keeping mood steady.

5. Screen time overloads the sensory system, fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves.

Experts say that what is often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.

6. Screen-time reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.”

Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. Electronics do just the opposite and reduce our exposure to a world that naturally puts you in a better mood.

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville. If you have questions or suggestions for future articles, she can be reached at or 585-335-4327.

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