Digital Devices and the Developing Child: Should You Go Screen-Free?

By Catherine Yang, Epoch Times
February 15, 2019 Updated: February 15, 2019

Eight-year-old Sam had always enjoyed learning, but in less than a year, his math and reading scores dropped. He was constantly being disruptive in classes, and he started dreading going to school. His teacher and school psychologist said he had ADHD, and the next step was medication.

Instead, his mother decided to dial back on the amount of screen time the family was getting. Within two months, he was turning in assignments, getting glowing reports from teachers about his attitude change, and his math and reading scores were climbing.

Sam is one of more than 500 children interviewed by psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley in a comprehensive study on the impact of electronic screen time on the developing brains of children and teenagers.

Going screen-free is not a new idea. Many screen-free campaigns began in the early 1990s, targeting reduced television time. But these movements hadn’t gained much traction until recent years, because our lives have never before been so consumed by the proliferation of screens. We are now seeing side effects that are unique to the new technologies that we have such easy access to, and they’re not all trivial.

Why Is Too Much Screen Time a Problem?

Even before delving into an argument about content—whether kids are looking at something good or bad—the behavioral habit of looking at screens for extended hours bears examining.

In the short term, we see changes in mood, behavior, and cognition. In the long term, it affects the child’s potential, Dunckley says. It affects how far children go in school, in relationships, and in their careers—in short, it could affect their quality of life in a dramatic way.

Impeding Growth

Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis, whose research has been influential in the field, puts it this way: “If we change the beginning of the story, we change the whole story.”

An infant’s brain triples in size by the age of 2. We are born with a lifetime’s supply of neurons, and the connections made between those cells are largely made in our first three years. Then, from ages 3 to 15, the mind is doing away with unused pathways and fine-tuning itself.

The point is, Christakis says, early experiences matter.

There is no research to back up any benefit from having any screen time for children up to 2 or 3 years of age, and emerging research shows this screen usage actually impedes the development of basic abilities like building vocabulary, learning to sense people’s attitudes and communication, and concentration or focus. This is because instead of strengthening these connections in the brain, the connections are either not being built, or being purged due to of lack of use. Some parents even see these skills regress in young children who start getting too much screen time.

Shrinking Brains

Picking up the habit of constantly checking a smartphone, watching hours of content on a tablet or television, or playing digital games creates new behavioral patterns as well. They become biologically compelled habits: The earlier you build these habits, the harder it is to stop. The brain comes to need it.

One of the biggest and most evident reasons is because the touchscreen device is an instant-gratification machine. You train the brain to expect immediate effects and constant stimulus. The brain responds with dopamine, which the body experiences as pleasure, and on the more severe end, the effect is addiction.

“On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine,” Chris Anderson, a former editor at Wired and the founder of GeekDad.com, told The New York Times. “This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain.”

One study of addicted teens’ brains discovered an imbalance of neurotransmitters. Most notably, they had too much of a neurotransmitter that slows down brain signals, resulting in effects such as drowsiness and anxiety, leading to larger symptoms like depression and other mental health issues.

Another study found shrinkage in the frontal lobe, which is basically the decision center of the brain in charge of planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control. The insula, which affects our ability to develop empathy for others and integrate physical cues with emotions, is also damaged.

Emotional Disadvantage

Catherine Steiner-Adair interviewed over 1,000 kids from age 4 to 18 about technology and their relationships for her book “The Big Disconnect” and found that parents aren’t teaching children to deal with frustration and boredom. By distracting them with screens, the children never truly learn how to recognize or work through their real feelings.

“If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we’ve done it,” Janis Whitlock, a Cornell University researcher, told TIME Magazine in 2016. “They’re in a cauldron of stimulus they can’t get away from.”

Around the same time smartphones became ubiquitous, 2011-2012, mental health issues skyrocketed, and in-person interactions plummeted in teens. Many prominent researchers say this is not just a coincidence, and generational researcher Jean Twenge outlines the phenomenon in her book on “iGen.”

“Just as playing the piano takes practice, so do social skills. iGen-ers are not practicing their in-person social skills as much as other generations did, so when it comes time for the ‘recital’ of their social skills, they are more likely to make mistakes onstage when it matters: in college interviews, when making friends in high school, and when competing for a job,” Twenge wrote.

The Diagnosis

The symptoms—trouble sleeping, becoming short-tempered and acting out, inability to regulate mood, and what seems like procrastination or the inability to complete what used to be simple tasks—often lead to misdiagnoses.

Some parents see a drop in cognition in their very young children and fear it is a learning disability. Older children who start showing emotional issues are often diagnosed with ADHD, or bipolar disorder, or something else. But psychiatrists call this “electronic screen syndrome.”

Dunckley, who has done extensive research on the matter, says what we end up seeing is a dysregulated brain: The child can’t regulate mood, can’t tolerate stress, and isn’t getting quality sleep.

Experts also point out there is a misconception that this is caused by too much passive screen time, as many educational games and apps are marketed as “interactive.” Parents, therefore, tend to limit passive but not interactive tech use. But Dunckley says interactive screen time is, in fact, more addictive than passive screen time, and is equally likely to cause problems.

What Can Parents Do?

First, parents should limit their own screen time.

Early childhood educator Erika Christakis writes that though parents today have more time for their children than ever, they are also more distracted than ever.

No one expects parents to be constantly engaged, but Christakis says “chronic distraction is another story.” The adult not only misses emotional cues, but also misreads them. They’re quicker to anger, perhaps assuming a child is trying to be manipulative when they’re asking for attention.

There are more immediately measurable effects: One study found that as cell service arrived and smartphone adoption rose area by area, so did children’s injuries. Other studies found that language learning—a key indicator of child development—is also affected by how distracted or engaged a parent is. One experiment found that the mere presence of a smartphone in the room with a mother and child affected how many new words the toddler learned.

“We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally,” Christakis said.

Children also mimic adults’ behaviors. If you want to limit screen time for your children, it will be much harder if they see you, too, are addicted to your phone.

Tips for Limiting Screen Use

Program directors at various screen-free initiatives have found that this works best when the family is all in. Whether you want to cut back on the number of hours spent with screens, or go a weekend, or a week, without these devices, the key to success is clearly communicating with and including the entire household.

The first step should be to assess your goals, and then create a plan that makes sense for your household.

Some parents prefer to gradually reduce screen time in the house. Others find it actually easier to go cold turkey with no screen time at all. What works for one family might not work for another: Some who have tried it find turning off the TV at mealtimes essential; another mom who tried a screen-free week reported that while she succeeded in encouraging family members to engage in other great activities, having the TV on at dinner actually encouraged her children to linger and chat, telling her about their day, rather than being a distraction to the family.

Be intentional about use. Older children might need to use a computer for homework, or the family might want to watch a movie together, or look up a tutorial to use for an activity.

Once you think about it this way, you might be surprised to realize how much of screen time is used to curb boredom—and boredom can really be quite healthy.

Rearranging rooms. Many family rooms are set up so that the television is the focal point. If these are the rooms the children spend most of their time in, it helps to organize so that the focal point is perhaps a table they can use for activities.

Having to replace the TV as a babysitter is a big worry for parents deciding to limit screen time, but childcare experts say that isn’t the point. Children don’t need to be constantly entertained, and you may just have to embrace a bit of messiness as you let them play independently. Endless variety in toys isn’t necessary either. Parents will find that even with few or simple toys, the creativity and imagination of a child more than make up the difference.

Set clear limits. Parents shouldn’t expect children to hold up to new screen usage restrictions on their own. In addition to clearly communicating when screen time is permitted, and for how long, some parents find it useful to designate certain rooms as screen-free.

Screen-free mornings. The first waking hours can set the tone for the rest of the day. For younger children especially, starting the day with some tablet or TV time could undo the good of all of the other screen-free initiatives you might have around the house and throughout the day.

Tips for Going Screen Free

Some families find it easiest to go screen-free completely, because if you get 20 minutes, it’s hard to put the phone or tablet down for the rest of the day. Some opt for a weekend, or one full week, and then pull back from regular screen use afterward.

Plan and communicate. If you choose to do a screen-free week, involve the whole family, and announce it in advance. Explain why you’re doing it, and what you hope to achieve.

There are some cases where going completely screen-free for an extended time will be the most beneficial.

Dunckley has written a book about a four-week “reset” program intended to help children who suffer from electronic screen syndrome. It takes four weeks, because it gives time for the brain to get deep rest and rejuvenate, and for parents, teachers, and doctors to clarify diagnoses.

The reset includes one week of planning. There are usually problem areas such as aggression, anxiety, not being able to stay on task, underachievement at school, social problems like poor sportsmanship, and then physical issues like headaches, tired eyes, and insomnia. Parents should identify and track problem areas, and inform other adults in the child’s life as well.

Also plan fun activities, because the reset isn’t meant to be a punishment. Dunckley suggests planning both family group activities and one-on-one activities, because children thrive on parents’ undivided attention, and bonding helps keep the child grounded, calming the nervous system.

Remove devices. Dunckley recommends taking all devices to work and stashing them in a drawer. It isn’t enough to just move the devices out of sight—if there is a hidden phone or game, and kids find it, they will try to sneak screen time.

“Don’t feel guilty that you’re not allowing the child a chance to be ‘responsible,’” Dunckley writes.

“Remember that a child’s frontal lobe is not fully developed and thus even a trustworthy child who promises not to play anymore (and really, really, really means it) can’t be expected to check urges or control impulses when temptations arise,” Dunckley wrote.

Acknowledge frustration. The parent should expect pushback. Younger children may cry, and older children will argue and even make threats. Sometimes, they may seem okay with the idea at first but panic a little later.

“Remember, from their perspective, something significant and substantial is being taken from their lives, and children have no idea how they’ll fill the void, so it’s appropriate to comfort them around this,” Dunckley writes.

They will also ask why, and she says just tell the truth: It’s an experiment.

The first week may be difficult, but as their brains receive the rest they desperately need, the appropriate amount of energy, blood flow, and nutrients start to return to the brain’s frontal lobe and balance out biological systems. And as the benefits kick in, it generally becomes easier, and even harmonious.

What Benefits Should You Expect?

A break from digital devices should see children return to more imaginative play as their creative energy returns.

In children of all ages, there should be improved mood, and less extreme or less frequent meltdowns. A mother of a 2- and 4-year-old said when she first took away the family room television, her sons would fight all the time, as if they didn’t know how to play with each other. But after a few days, they were getting along and able to play together.

On a biological level, the brain is relieved from the constant stimulus that puts it in fight-or-flight mode, and as a result is freed up to expend energy on other things, like learning new concepts and processing emotions.

Parents want the best for their children, and a few small changes early in their lives can have lifelong impacts. If going screen-free sounds intimidating, who knows, perhaps you may benefit from taking a step back as well.

Catherine Yang is an arts and culture reporter for The Epoch Times.

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How Much Screen Time Are Children Getting?

29% of babies under 1 watch 90 minutes of video

64% of children ages 1 to 2 watch at least 2 hours of video

Various studies put the average daily screen time for children ages 2 to 5 at 2.2 hours to 4.6 hours

Children ages 8 to 18 consume an average of 7 hours and 11 minutes of screen media daily

(Source: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood)

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