Screen Time Is Slowing Children’s Neurological and Social Development

More screen learning in schools and COVID-19 shutdowns have increased risks

Screen Time Is Slowing Children’s Neurological and Social Development
Excessive screen time can lead to outbursts and anger. (fizkes/Shutterstock)
By
1/4/2023
Updated:
3/16/2023
Forty years ago when television was king, women used to joke about setting the table with the remote control placed next to the fork, so addicted were people to TV. Flash forward to today’s screen culture, and you find many children spend more time on screens than they do sleeping or with a full- or part-time job. Increased screen learning in schools and COVID-19 shutdowns have added to the mix of video games, smartphones, laptops, and tablets that have all but captured today’s children.
But is all that screen-watching just a harmless waste of time? No. According to scientific studies, it's producing actual negative changes in our children’s brain development. Research published in the International Journal of Sociology of the Family in 2021, for example, states that excessive screen time is linked to “atrophy in the frontal, striatal, and insula cortex regions of the brain” and specifically reduction in the thickness of the orbitofrontal cortex.

“Thinning of the orbitofrontal cortex has also been shown to significantly impact memory and can increase the incidence of obsessive-compulsive disorder,” the paper reads.

Excessive screen use is also linked to a decline in “crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence,” as well as a decline in executive functions, the paper’s author wrote. What are executive functions? Brain activities that are crucial to adulthood, such as the ability to plan, remember instructions, pay attention, multi-task, shift between tasks and complete them, delay gratification, control impulses, process sensory input, regulate social behavior, and even have self-awareness. Although young people may appear fully grown, executive functions don't fully develop until the mid-to-late 20s, which is why excessive screen usage can be so dangerous.
A recent study in The Journal of Pediatrics found that just one hour of screen time per day was linked to diminished executive functions in children as young as 2 years old. Research published in Preventive Medicine Reports found that just one hour per day of screen time in children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 17 was linked to less curiosity, less self-control, and greater distractibility. Sadly, teens are now averaging more than nine hours per day of screen time while those aged 8 to 12 are averaging eight hours, according to research by Common Sense Media.
Research in the journal Environmental Research echoes that brain structural changes and cognitive and emotional regulation are associated with excess screen time. It even offers a case study in which screen time may have added to the ADHD diagnosis of a 9-year-old boy.

Screens in Schools

Clearly, executive functions are basic to academic achievement, but what does the screen-based learning that has overtaken so many education settings mean for children? A study conducted at the U.S. Military Academy, better known as West Point, found that “unrestricted laptop use reduces students’ exam scores by 0.18 standard deviations” and that “tablets reduce scores by 0.17 standard deviations,” amounting to a difference between a B+ and A- in students’ grade point averages (GPAs) when generalized, the researchers reported in the journal Education Next.

“We also looked separately at subgroups of students defined based on gender, race, scores on college-entrance exams, and entering GPA. In no group did students appear to significantly benefit from access to computers in the classroom. We did find some suggestive evidence that permitting computers is more detrimental to male students than to female students and to students with relatively high entrance-exam scores,” the researchers said.

One of the reasons computers may not improve academic performance is that they're a source of distraction rather than education.
Melanie Hempe, founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to limit their children’s screen time, and an Epoch Times contributor, sees other impediments to academic learning caused by screens, such as relying on the easy retrieval of computers to “remember” facts rather than using one’s own memory, a practice sometimes called “cognitive offloading.” Taking notes by hand rather than on a computer also better employs our memory, according to Hempe.

“Like any muscle, the brain needs to ‘work out' by thinking deeply and critically and not just practicing data entry skills or surfing for quick answers to get a task done,” she said.

Writing doesn't seem to benefit from screen time either. A screen-based child may have myriad “websites at her fingertips” but “can’t seem to complete a research paper in any reasonable amount of time,” or may take “twice as long to write a paragraph” as those working without screens, Hempe said.
Even early research into screen-based learning in schools raised concerns. Researchers writing in the journal Pediatrics in 2006 linked television and video game screen time with poorer school performance, and research published in the journal South African Family Practice in 2004 linked “sedentary, screen-based behavior in children” to mental health effects, less physical activity, and digital eye strain.

Special Concerns About Generation Z and the Selfie Era

Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” is especially concerned about the effect of screen time on Generation Z—those born between 1997 and 2012.
“There has never been a generation this depressed, fragile and anxious,” he told The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook, Instagram, and the “selfie era” began when Generation Z babies were in their mid-teens, creating a childhood that is “largely just through the phone,” according to Haidt.

“It seems social because you’re communicating with people. But it’s performative," he said. "You don’t actually get social relationships. You get weak, fake social links.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) took the dangers a step further and characterized the popular app TikTok as “digital fentanyl” on Meet The Press.

Possible Emotional and Physical Effects of Screens

Few parents will be surprised that excessive screen use is associated with emotional problems such as depression and anxiety. Research published in Preventive Medicine Reports found that moderate use of screens was linked to lower psychological well-being and high screen use more than doubled the likelihood of a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, treatment by a mental health professional, and a child being on medication for a psychological or behavioral issue.
A study published in the journal Preventative Medicine echoes that high screen time along with its accompanying insufficient physical activity “interact to increase depressive, anxiety symptoms and school life dissatisfaction among Chinese adolescents.”
Physical changes that can result from excessive screen time include sleep deprivation. Screen light suppresses melatonin, and researchers in the journal Pediatrics wrote that unrestricted screen access in children's bedrooms causes “insufficient rest or sleep.” Sadly, insufficient sleep is also linked to physical issues and “risk factors for cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity, low HDL cholesterol, poor stress regulation (high sympathetic arousal and cortisol dysregulation) and insulin resistance,” according to research in the journal Environmental Research.
“Other physical health consequences include impaired vision and reduced bone density,” the research reads.

Socializing and More Emotional Effects

Clearly screen behavior is usually solitary, and even video calls are no substitute for face-to-face interaction in social places. We now know that excessive screen time damages children’s healthy socialization. Researchers have linked excessive screen use among children to difficulty making friends, decreased prosocial behavior, and a greater risk for antisocial behavior.

Excessive screen time can also lead to outbursts and anger, according to screen use experts. That fact is also attested to by countless parents who have worked to set screen time limits for their children.

A juvenile probation officer told Hempe: “I’ve had many parents calling me in tears because their child erupted in violence against them. One mom bought her son a phone as a reward because he was doing so well in school. When his use got out of control, she tried to take the phone away, and he hit her. A lot of kids find their way into the juvenile justice system this way.”

Lack of Outdoor Play and Sunshine

Obviously, children engaging in screen time, especially video games, aren't outside playing with other children as their parents likely did. Lack of outdoor play denies children exercise, companionship, Vitamin D, and the healing powers of nature. For example, immersing oneself in a forest or woods, often called forest bathing, is “hypothesized to be directly related to the release of phytoncides from various tree species,” according to research in the International Journal of Sociology of Family Studies. Phytoncides are antimicrobial allelochemical organic compounds found in essential tree oils.

"Phytoncides have a significant effect on GABA receptors which enhance immune and endocrine systems thus leading to better overall physiological and psychological health outcomes,” the researchers wrote.

Other benefits of forest bathing include a decrease in anxiety, stress hormones, tension, anger, and fatigue and an improvement in immunological functioning and glucose levels. It has even been used as a modality in treating Type 2 diabetes, which is on the rise as children embrace screen entertainment.

What Can Parents Do?

Since screen time is a habit, Hempe suggests that parents break the cues that lead children to screens. Hempe gives an example of a little boy who had the habit of heading right to his room to play a video game after school. One day, the boy’s mother decided to announce that she would jump on the trampoline after school with her children, immediately interrupting the screen habit and introducing them to fun, non-screen-based entertainment.

In addition to breaking habits and cues, parents should encourage outdoor activities whenever possible. If the weather doesn't cooperate, games, crafts, and rewarding and creative indoor play should be emphasized.

Yes, children will get angry when denied what has become such a habit to them, according to many parents, but parents shouldn't back down.

“If your children tell you they need their smartphone for distance learning, to keep up with their friends, don’t buy it,” Hempe wrote in The Epoch Times. “They also want to eat ice cream sandwiches all day and have popcorn for dinner.”

For more guidance on how you can protect children from the deleterious effects of excess screen time while not losing the many positive effects of technology, parents can visit ScreenStrong.org.