Ubiquitous digital screens are a defining feature of our era. Movies, television, desktops, laptops, pads and tablets, cell phones, readers and gaming devices … many of us spend hours a day in front of a glowing blue screen. We work, play and depend on them for socialization and relaxation. The total amount of screen time for kids each day—an average of 6.5 hours—has more than doubled in the last 20 years.
How Much Screen Time for Kids is Too Much?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours total screen time daily, but psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., cautions that even that small amount can create problems for some children who exhibit adverse effects after that degree of exposure. Dunckley calls the adverse effects Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS), symptoms of which include hyper-stimulation, hyper-focus, sleeplessness, nervous tics, irritability or rapidly changing moods, low tolerance for frustration, tantrums, depression, poor self-discipline, disorganized behavior, defiance, rage, meltdowns and antisocial behavior, poor sportsmanship, social immaturity, poor eye contact, stymied creativity, learning difficulties or a drop in school performance, poor short-term memory, and poor executive functioning (reasoning, judgment, task completion, planning, problem solving and critical thinking).
Over the past 10 years, the incidence of childhood ADHD has increased 50 percent. In Dunckley’s opinion, ESS may account, in part, for the exacerbation and misdiagnosis, or both, of childhood cases of ADD, ADHD and even bipolar disorder. Dunckley likens the effects of overuse of electronics on some children to stimulants such as caffeine, amphetamines or cocaine.
Screens Zap Our Brain Power
In “It’s Digital Heroine: How Screens Turn Kids into Psychotic Junkies,” Dr. Nicholas Kadaras asserts that children who feel lonely, alienated, bored, or who lack purpose are far more prone to become addicted to digital escapism. “We now know that those iPads, smartphones, and Xboxes are a form of digital drug. Recent brain imaging research is showing that they affect the brain’s frontal cortex—which controls executive functioning, including impulse control—in exactly the same way that cocaine does,” says Kadaras.
More frightening than addiction is how interactive screen time actually reshapes our brain. In “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain” at PsychologyToday.com, Dunkley reports on multiple studies that conclude that interactive screen time atrophies our gray matter. Among the parts of the brain affected are the frontal lobe, which controls functions such as planning and impulse control; the striatum, which is involved in the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses; and the insula, which affects our capacity to develop empathy and compassion.
These can be frightening words for parents, but it’s important to remember that while it is good to be aware of ESS and watch for signs of imbalance, not every child responds in the same ways.
Not All Screen Time is the Same
So how is it that those of us who were raised in front of a television don’t exhibit ESS symptoms more? The answer seems to lie in the differences between two types of screen time:
- Passive screen time refers to activities in which the screen is across the room and the viewer has almost no interaction with it.
- Interactive screen time refers to activities in which the user interfaces with the device.
Both passive and interactive screen time can restructure expectations. Constant exposure to a panoply of fantasy graphics, sound effects and fast action can result in learners with short attention spans who crave entertainment and eschew essential learning skills such as memorization and working to solve difficult, multi-step problems.
Finding a Balance
Screen time can be used strategically to redirect back to reading. Consider using the impact-forming tendency of interactive screen time to enhance education. For example, the occasional use of a computer game can liven up math drills, and quality role playing simulations can help children understand historical events in context. Moreover, it could be beneficial after reading a literary classic to watch the movie adaptation then compare and contrast the two versions of the story.
We want to keep our children safe, but kids crave adventure and the excitement of a challenge. The digital environment offers children new frontiers to explore and the chance to play the hero in the relative safety of our homes. Unfortunately, the dangers inherent in digital adventure are real and hidden.
Unlike the broken bone from falling out of the tree, it is not so apparent how digital adventure is hurting our children. Yes, our children need digital literacy to survive and thrive in the world today, but they also need to know how to exercise safety and moderation in using digital technology. Offering children enriching, real-world experiences and relationships, while teaching them to self-moderate—in all things—may be the best defense against digital overload.