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The Effects of Screen Time on the Brain and Body

Today, children are bombarded with digital media and technology. No matter how we feel about it, technology is here to stay.​ They are exposed to different forms of media and technology, including smartphones, laptops and Chromebooks in school, TV, music, video games, apps, and so on. Technology is shaping the brains and experiences of a whole generation of children. While there are advantages (I mean what was life like before Google?!), to technology in our lives, we also need to teach kids to find a balance between healthy usage and too much screen time. That isn’t easy for every child and teen. Thus, understanding how to balance family screen time challenges parents in more ways every year.

When is Media Usage A Problem?

Children in the US are spending a lot of time online and using technology. Between Netflix, YouTube, Fortnite, Minecraft, etc, One 2018 survey found that 43% of parents allow their child two to four hours of screen time per day. That doesn’t include the increasing reliance on computers to deliver instruction at school. Gaming is on the increase across all ages and a 2016 survey noted that even young children (ages 2-11) are averaging 2 hours 28 minutes per week using a gaming console. These same children are also spending more than 19 hours a week watching television.

But media use isn’t automatically problematic. In some situations, technology offers learning advantages, such as education differentiation in schools. But when family life is constantly disrupted by time limits, however, or when screen usage begins to affect and limit other spheres of life, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

How Much Screen Time by Age are Kids Spending on Devices?

Kids today are often have excessive screen time usage and even more so as a result of the global pandemic. According to the CDC and the Kaiser Family foundation, research says that kids ages 8 to 18 are spending 7.5 hours a day on their devices!

Why Limit Your Child’s Media Usage?

Excessive screen time is associated with negative behaviors and behavioral issues. We are now only beginning to understand the full societal ramifications of these changes. Now the question that needs to be answered is this: how much screen time is too much? That isn’t an easy answer and needs to be a family decision; some families don’t have any limits; others have strict weekday limits. A recent NIH brain imaging study, shows us just how stimulating social media usage is for the teenage brain.  Given the way we know that excessive screen time affects a child’s brain and body, as well as their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development, all families should create reasonable and appropriate limits for their child’s media usage. Here’s why we limit children’s media usage:

Decreased Social Interactions and Social Skills

Research correlates increased device usage with less interpersonal playing. Since play is important for all spheres of a child’s development, reduced play may cause children to develop differently. Without interactions with other children, research has found that children are struggling to recognize emotions in others. These UCLA scientists found that the middle school participants who went five days without any digital screen usage did substantially better at reading human emotions than students from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices. The impact of decreased social skills on children in the real world, family life, and the academic setting is huge.

Decreased Communication Skills

Without practice in face-to-face communication, important pragmatic communication skills can be lost. A 2014 study found that an adolescent who spends more than four hours a day on their device are weaker at accurately reading body language and facial expressions in comparison to children who have reduced access to devices.  Data from a recent NIH study have revealed something the kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests. Today, teens don’t know how to make a simple phone call because of lack of practice due to texting. From the nuances of conversation with strangers to engaging in deeper reciprocal communication (aka, talking about other people’s interests in a back and forth manner), communication skills of the younger generation are waning.

Lack of Self-Regulation

Through play, children gain many skills, including the ability to self-regulate. Moreover, regular engagement in activities that calm the nervous system, such as exercise or reading, are necessary to regulate the nervous system. Device usage creates a lot of Central Nervous System (CNS) overstimulation, which makes it hard for children and teens to self-regulate attention, emotions, and cognitive processing.

Sleep Problems

Media usage can interfere with an adolescent’s sleep. A 2016 study found that (97%) of adolescents used some form of technology before sleep and that delayed bedtime and shorter total sleep time have been found to be most consistently related to media use. They found that longer average screen-time was associated with shorter sleep duration and worse sleep-efficiency. Moreover, longer average screen-times during bedtime and the sleeping period were associated with poor sleep quality, decreased sleep efficiency, and longer sleep onset.

Increased EMF Exposure

When you hold your cell phone up to your ear, somewhere between 10% to 80% of the radiation from the phone penetrates two inches into your brain. Even having a phone near you, when use or not, can expose you. The California Department of Public Health reports that since the brains and bodies of children are much smaller and less developed, that the same amount of radiation will have a greater impact on them. Studies have demonstrated that EMF does cause a variety of health issues in rats, including tumors and cardiac issues. Studies have also found that “near-field” exposures, which means having a cell phone near them, also demonstrated health issues in rats.

Decreased School Performance

Aside from the logical conclusion that spending too much time on electronic devices takes away from learning and studying, research has found that the use of internet-enabled electronic devices in the classroom can be distracting and lead to lower grades. Divided attention between a lecture and a device reduced long-term retention of the classroom lecture, which impaired subsequent unit exam and final exam performance. The 2018 study found that students who had a device with them scored a half a letter grade lower on exams than students who didn't use electronics.

Decreased Reading Skills

The Washington Post reported that in the US leisure reading is at an all-time low. It has fallen by more than 30 percent since 2004 and increased television viewing is a big part of that decline . The Literacy Project Foundation reports that “Six out of ten American households do not buy a single book in an entire year.” Children need books to advance skills and kids just aren’t reading as much.

Decreased Athletic Skills and Obesity

Children and teens are just not as active due to increased screen time. Obesity is one of the best-documented outcomes of screen media exposure. Epidemiologic studies reveal that when children have a lot of screen time, they also consume fewer fruits and vegetables and more sugary and fatty foods. These diet changes may be related to increased weight gain. Children need movement in order to support normal regulation of their vestibular, motor, and visual systems. We know through research there are positive effects of physical activity on attention and executive functioning, so movement is important for the developing brain and to support alertness in the classroom.

At-Risk Behaviors

Strong attachment  is important to psychological development and in particular, attachment to peers is also associated with better psychological health and social competence but, in contrast, high media usage is associated with more participation in risky behaviors. Research has long demonstrated that mass media (TV, radio, magazines) has been linked to potentially unhealthy behaviors. When kids and teens get more involved in sports and are physically active instead of spending their time gaming or watching TV, research shows that the risk of at-risk behaviors decreases.

Increased Chance for Anxiety and Depression

We know through research that too much screen time can lead to increased depression and anxiety and depression in teens. How kids are spending their time on their devices makes a difference. When it is passive scrolling, teens are more apt to have clinical diagnosis of anxiety, social anxiety, and depression. On the flip side, active engagement on their devices with peers was found to improve mental health. So the lesson here is the quality of engagement on our devices matters and we should limit passive scrolling such as watching videos for hours on end.

Gaming Addiction

Gaming addiction is increasing so much that the DSM-5 added a new diagnostic category to recognize its prevalence. In one national study, about 8% of video-game players exhibited pathological patterns of play. Complicating internet addiction is that it has been found that many of the children and teens diagnosed with gaming addiction have a primary mental health issue such as ADHD, anxiety, or depression. The occurrence of depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, social phobia, and hostility were found to predict the occurrence of internet addiction.

Cyberbullying

Bullying has moved from the bus to the social media world. Rumors move faster than bargain sales at Macy’s. From exclusions on a group text to outright nasty pictures and videos, this is the reality of children and teens today. Navigating social media is a challenge for even the most well-adjusted child; for kids with impulse control issues or social challenges, navigation is even more difficult. Being a victim of bullying of any kind can have huge ramifications for children’s mental health. While schools are trying to stay on top of this, it is important for parents to monitor their kids’ social media use and talk to them about proper online etiquette.

Exposure to Sexting, Predators, and Privacy Issues

As parents, our biggest worries about social media are the lack of privacy and how easy it is for our kids to victimized. Children have still developing frontal lobes, which means they do impulsive things! Kids doing impulsive things isn’t new but having a record of the things they do is.

In a 2018 meta-analysis of the Prevalence of Multiple Forms of Sexting Behavior Among Youth, found that one in seven teens are sending sexts while one in four are receiving them. The social and long-term consequences of that can be lasting. Sexts, images, and texts can be shared without consent, causing serious privacy concerns. And the threat of predators trolling private chats and servers trying to lure kids and teens are very real. No one ever wants to think their child is naïve enough to get caught in the sex trade, but it happens every day in the US.

Family Discord

A 2010 study examined the associations between screen time (television, video or DVD, gaming, and computer use) and attachment to parents and peers, found that more time spent television viewing and less time spent reading and doing homework were associated with low attachment to parents and therefore greater discord in the family. At the heart of the issue is arguments about setting limits on device usage. If there is one topic that comes up more than any with the parents that I work with, it is how to limit screen time. Kids today demand phones and devices and parents are caught in the middle of trying to support their child’s social needs (because without it, kids are not socially connected to their peers) balanced with healthy activities. This isn’t easy and creates a lot of arguing and frustration.

While we are in uncharted territory with managing screen time, every generation of parents faces challenges with new technology; we are no different. Talking with (not at!) your kids about managing screen time and how technology affects their brains and bodies is a good way for them to gain their own perspective and begin to regulate usage.

Technology has brought many helpful and exciting tools into our lives but some children and teens struggle to regulate their tech usage. This can cause a lot of discord into a family. Read my blog Tips for Healthy Media Usage to learn more about how to set limits and find a healthy balance.

Are you looking for help for your child’s or teen’s behavior? 

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Dr. Roseann is a Children’s Mental Health Expert and Therapist who has been featured in/on hundreds of  media outlets including, CBS, NBC, FOX News, PIX11 NYC, The New York Times, The Washington Post,, Business Insider, USA Today, CNET, Marth Stewart, and PARENTS. FORBES called her, “A thought leader in children’s mental health.” 

She is the founder and director of The Global Institute of Children’s Mental Health and Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge. Dr. Roseann is a Board Certified Neurofeedback (BCN) Practitioner, a Board Member of the Northeast Region Biofeedback Society (NRBS), Certified Integrative Medicine Mental Health Provider (CMHIMP) and an Amen Clinic Certified Brain Health Coach.  She is also a member of The International Lyme Disease and Associated Disease Society (ILADS), The American Psychological Association (APA), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) and The Association of Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB).

© Roseann-Capanna-Hodge, LLC 2021

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