Kids Are Getting Wired for Stress By Screens

The "life and death" world of video games creates an addictive mix of stress and novelty
BY Melanie Hempe TIMEMarch 2, 2022 PRINT

Mindfulness and meditation may be growing in popularity, but so is their opposite: digital distraction.

Our kids often spend more time on screens than sleeping. This lack of sleep along with the risks of online predators and pornography are obvious problems with today’s teen screen culture.

But another big problem often gets overlooked: chronic stress. This stress can affect your child’s development, rob them of wonderful opportunities, and change their personality. It is also a significant contributor to rising rates of anxiety, depression, and teen suicide.

Gaming Is Not Always Relaxing

When my oldest son began gaming three to five hours a day, I knew he was wasting time.

I didn’t know that while he was climbing the leaderboard, his stress hormones were climbing to new levels, too. His adrenal glands were releasing surges of adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in higher blood pressure, an increased heart rate, and a boost of energy to fight, in this case, a virtual enemy.

I missed all the signs of toxic stress: My son was irritable, stayed up all night, had angry outbursts, and was easily depressed. I even noticed stains on his pants from wiping his sweaty hands during gameplay.

I thought gaming was what he did to relieve stress. I thought he deserved a break from his homework; he was a straight-A student and needed downtime. Even when we got to the point where we felt like we were losing him, it never crossed my mind that the stress from his game was hurting him mentally and physically. It was a game, so how could it be stressful?

I now know that gaming (as well as social media use) can be one of the least relaxing downtime activities for a child. The stress that it can cause will wreak havoc on a developing brain and change a teen’s adult life. This is the underlying reason that this new cultural norm—a video game and smartphone in the lap of every child—can make childhood today the most anxiety-filled stage of development.

Social media may not be violent in the same way video games are, but the fear of being left out and suffering a social cancellation also triggers biochemical stress responses. Due to the importance of relationships in our lives, the fear of a social death can be especially stressful, leading to anxiety and despair.

Everything New Seems Fun

The job of every video game and social media platform is to keep their users hooked. The job of every parent is to make sure your child isn’t one of the captured.

The persuasive elements of games and social media—rewards, upgrades, comments, likes, and hearts—are similar to those used to addict gamblers at the casino; that is easy to understand. What is harder to grasp are the additional factors used on these platforms to keep our kids hooked: novelty and fear.

Humans crave novelty, a seemingly benign element that everyone loves. All games have constant novelty: new levels, new skins, new music, and new worlds. Feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine are activated by new developments in the game. The more excitement, the more dopamine is released. The novelty hook is a sure winner for the game designers, but if it doesn’t keep your child’s eyes glued to the screen, fear might.

Gaming Is Life or Death to the Revved-Up Brain

The element of fear is around the corner in every game, even the E-rated ones. Why? Because game designers know that the fear of dying produces more adrenaline and keeps the player engaged.

If a child is playing a nonviolent game, they may have to avoid falling down a hole or lava pit, kick a turtle, or dodge a fireball all before the timer runs out. If they are playing a violent game like Fortnite, they must fight for their life to stay alive and in the game. Both types of games are simultaneously thrilling and stressful.

Parents struggle to understand the ramifications of this fear factor. For an adult, the threat of losing a character in a game is trivial. For the child, these virtual deaths are life-like. When there are threats to their character’s life, the brain’s amygdala sounds the alarm that danger is ahead. This activates a series of survival responses, putting the brain in a state of high alert. Because the brain can’t tell the difference between a real, physical threat and a virtual one, the fight-or-flight response system kicks in, releasing a cascade of chemicals. The spike in adrenaline and cortisol triggers physiological changes—rapid breathing, increased pulse, and release of glucose—to prepare the body to react to danger. Focus narrows, and long-term executive function skills are displaced by heightened responses to immediate stimuli.

The stress state keeps the child from fully accessing the thinking part of their brain—the frontal cortex. After all, who needs to worry about eating dinner or doing homework when your “life” is on the line? The more they play, the more stressed they become. When the body’s stress system is always on, there is no relief from biochemical surges, and the vicious cycle continues. This chronic stress state wears out both the body and the mind, and the younger the brain, the more damaging the effects.

Stress in Virtual Life Equals Stress in Real Life

Overusing this fight-or-flight system through repeated interactive screen play results in this pathway becoming faster and stronger. This is how playing video games actually shapes the structure of the brain. Like a tire track in wet cement, over time, this stress pathway hardens into a rut that becomes the preferred route when other triggers occur in the real world.

Once the stress pathway becomes the path of least resistance, it is easily activated when real-life threats happen. Your child may overreact with a stress response for a trivial reason because that route has become their default mode when provoked; maybe they will throw something in anger or say something vicious. Remember, their impulse control skills are not yet honed, but their fight-or-flight response is. Parents usually don’t notice the problem until the stress signs are more pronounced. You may notice relationship conflicts, lying, a lower attention span for academic work, inability to focus, and more aggressive behavior in real-life play. Parents may get therapists involved if their child is acting out in school.

Doing anything when you are stressed is difficult. A teen under chronic stress—due to too much game time and not enough sleep—will not reach their academic potential. Screen stress can make it more difficult to plan ahead, solve problems, have empathy, or consider the consequences of an action.

Living in this chronic stress state hinders the ability to make and keep friends, because a chronically stressed child is no fun to be around. Parents may put their child on medication, or try to reason with their habitual gamer. Some parents think that their child will outgrow the problem, but the best solution for this chronic stress is to remove the source and allow the brain to reset.

The Game Becomes Their New Family

All that time invested in the virtual world makes it difficult for the child to walk away. They feel anxious when they try, which can cause even more stress.

When the child spends time building a sense of belonging in the virtual world, especially in multiplayer games, they become comfortable with shallow online relationships and the chronic stress state. Consequently, the real world can feel awkward and uncomfortable.

Meanwhile, the cost of lost opportunities can become significant, possibly as great as the toll that screen-induced stress is taking on the mind and body. This chronic stress state keeps your child from exploring healthy interests and hobbies that are traditionally discovered during adolescence. This time in life is critical because the brain and body are going through crucial phases of development. But the biggest loss is their detachment from their relationship with their family.

What About Moderation?

Moderation works for non-stressful screen time, like a family movie or schoolwork, but moderation does not work for toxic, stress-producing interactive screen activities.

When your child plays online games for 30 minutes a day—or does anything for 30 minutes a day—they are building a strong habit. Even brief daily gaming stress will stimulate and strengthen the stress pathway. Stress effects are cumulative and ingrained, meaning that your child’s brain doesn’t get a clean slate every morning to start over.

Games are designed to hook the player, so 30 minutes or even one hour a day will never be enough. Eventually, you will be arguing with your teenager when they won’t leave the game to come to dinner or go to soccer practice. You will wish you never let them start.

Drop the Screen to Relieve the Stress

There is much debate over best practices for managing stressful screens. Therapists, other parents, or the neighbor next door may all offer opinions. However, when you consider the brain science of how chronic stress is changing our kids’ brains and making them suffer, the answer is simple: Remove the stimulant so the brain can reset and heal.

Is this easy? No. The best solutions are rarely easy or popular. But they work, and many families are finding that their kids are thriving without video games and social media. Playing video games is not a mandatory or healthy activity for kids.

The most successful resets occur when parents boldly eliminate toxic screen use—video games and social media—from their child’s digital diet, and focus on real-life activities that require movement and exposure to nature—a natural healer of stress. Parents can reinforce life skills, non-tech hobbies, and in-person relationships. When they do, they begin to get their child back.

These countercultural parents understand that in-person relationships are a natural safeguard against the dangers of toxic stress. When children play with others offline, they are healthier and become smarter. When a teen spends time with friends, they are calmer and less anxious. When more time is spent with their family, they enjoy a deeper sense of attachment and happiness. It is not a guarantee, but you are increasing the odds of having happier and healthier kids when toxic screens are removed.

Community calms us; isolation stresses us. Teach your kids how to keep a few good friends and enjoy building in-person relationships. This is the life your kids are craving. As your child grows in confidence and purpose, your whole family will be happier. This stress-free life will bring calm and peace to your home. When you join the ranks of the parents who choose to take the road less traveled and hit the pause button on the video game, you will finally get your lost child back and rediscover what you both were missing all along.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children escape the toxic consequences of overusing screens. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. Try a screen-free week and take the ScreenStrong Challenge. For seven days, you will dive into real life and your kids will get a chance to reset their brains and activities.


Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to keep the benefits of screen media for kids while empowering parents to delay screens that can be toxic—like video games and smartphones. The ScreenStrong solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skill development, and family connection.
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