Science Explains How Screen Dependency Can Damage A Child’s Brain

screen dependencyChildren

Technology as it pertains to our daily lives has permeated from our work to our homes, cars, and everything in between. Whether it is our computer, our cell phone, a tablet, or our GPS Navigation system, the level of both work and entertainment we can now do is astounding!  With that technology comes responsibility toward how we use it and newfound discoveries as to how it affects us.

As adults, we can learn to use restraint or recognize when we are going too far in our screen dependency as it impacts our day-to-day lives.  However, it has become a convenience and a reward in entertaining children as well as a tool necessary for them to navigate this increasingly technological world in their future.  Over the years, there have been several claims regarding the effect of screen dependency from everything from televisions to video games, social media, phone apps, texting, messaging, mobile games, and more.  Some of these are valid while others are likely a bit exaggerated.

Parents Reporting Symptoms of Screen Dependency

One issue which has garnered support due to research from scientists is labeled screen dependency, especially regarding children. Screen dependency is a disorder or dysfunction consisting of a group of symptoms primarily related to the use of computers, gaming consoles, cell phones, and tablets in conjunction with the use of apps, games, and social media.  An article in Psychology Today, written by Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley in 2012, reports statements by parents regarding their children’s behavior to consist of:

  • Inability to focus
  • Exhaustion
  • Extreme, angry outbursts affecting ability to interact with other children
  • Decrease in school performance

Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley also reports that she believes there is a connection between this digital media use and the rise in pediatric bipolar diagnosis and ADHD.  Pediatric bipolar consists of a diagnosis of bipolar related behavior prior to the age of 18, as originally it was believed to only surface in older teens and young adults.  She reports that pediatric bipolar disorder increased 40 times over between 1994 and 2003; between 1980 and 2007, the diagnosis for ADHD increased by nearly 800 percent.  Consequently, it has resulted in an increase of antipsychotics and stimulants.  These medications carry with them additional side effects on children which can cause additional slowing of brain and neurological functions.

While she acknowledges that screen use is not causing the disorders, it is mimicking very similar behaviors or may trigger other stressors for those more susceptible to such disorders.  These symptoms show themselves in mood, social interaction, neurological function, and physical activity.  The children exhibit increased anxiety, lower cognitive function, low frustration tolerance, sleep difficulties, poor short-term memory, defiant behavior, and more.

Symptoms of Screen Dependency

From a diagnostic point of view, what has been identified as symptoms of screen dependency?  According to Dr. Aric Sigman from The Journal of the International Child Neurology Association, the behavior consists of:

  • Preoccupation
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Increasing tolerance toward the device
  • Failure to reduce or stop activities performed on device(s)
  • Loss of interest in outside activities
  • Negative consequences being ineffective in reduction
  • Lying about the amount of use
  • Using the device to escape dealing with other emotional issues

Parallel to these symptoms is also how it affects their daily behavior and how they see the world.  The child expects the environment to instantly respond to them and are unable to understand why pressing on various objects doesn’t create a sound, a bright light, or instantly give them what they want.  They are agitated, have angry outbursts and are restless when they are unable to have the device. This behavior goes beyond the typical child temper tantrum.

This is because the ability to learn impulse control has decreased due to the devices showing them a reward instantly.  They don’t need to learn the concept of waiting or patience.  The desired reaction is instantaneous.  Additionally, they tend to want to eat snacks while using the device without any awareness of how much they are eating, which contributes to obesity and poor nutrition.

They may even show a decrease in outdoor play due to not achieving the same level interaction with regular toys.  Evidence also shows a decrease in their ability to plan or organize as well as a decline in their ability to learn empathy.   Even this list does not complete the picture.  In addition to these symptoms are secondary effects such as:  headaches, insomnia, lack of social interaction, loneliness, and anxiety.

Screen Dependency and Related Disorders

More concerning, according to the American Psychiatric Association, there are many similarities between the effects on the brain of screen dependency and drug dependency.    Due to this, other more specific screen-related disorders fall under the umbrella of Screen Dependency, according to a report written by Dr. Aric Sigman in the Journal of the International Child Neurology Association.

  • Internet addiction disorder
  • Internet gaming disorder
  • Problematic internet use
  • Compulsive internet use
  • Pathological video game use
  • Video game addiction
  • Pathological technology use
  • Online game addiction
  • Mobile phone dependence
  • Social network site addiction
  • Facebook addiction
  • Internet pornography addiction

While it can affect adults, the primary concern is focused toward children. This is due to the various ways early exposure to technology can interrupt their brain development, physical activity, and social skills.  Some discussion continues as to how many of the symptoms relate to an undiagnosed neural dysfunction or learning disability. Such a factor might draws certain children to these electronic devices initially; the use then creates further dysfunction.  Clarification regarding this relationship requires further studies and more time to observe outcomes of technology use.

While Screen Dependency and its related disorders are still the focus of further research, scientists and psychologists are strongly advising parents to not introduce children to any electronic device or digital media until after the age of 18 months, and children over the age of 2 should not exceed an hour of use per day.  There are benefits to children using these devices as they do hone coordination and reflexes and are a tool for their future.  Children should be encouraged to experience playtime with other children, take part in physical activity, and read books that aren’t on a screen or digitally read aloud.

Adult Screen Dependency Is Also A Problem

It is important that parents set an example for their children by spending quality time with them doing activities not related to digital devices and to even limit television use.  Parents should know their children’s normal behavior. They  can observe changes they see as it pertains to screen use – both immediately after use and over time.

Make no mistake – these behaviors are not exclusive to children.  Especially as it pertains to the addictive qualities, adults can fall victim as well.  Even though adults over the age of 35 were not raised with these devices, they are still susceptible to the instant gratification and rewards that come from using smartphones and tablets.  Studies have shown that the same areas of the brain are affected as those who have a drug addiction.  For children, teens, and adults alike, the sedentary nature of using these devices has been linked to obesity and therefore diabetes, strokes, and heart attacks at earlier ages.

The “blue light” emitted from the device has been proven to affect one’s quality of sleep if looked at within 2 hours of going to sleep. Sleep deprivation can then cause additional weight gain and mood changes; tolerance and frustration levels are also lowered and overall performance in your day is decreased.  It is not a coincidence that the herbal supplement melatonin has been increasingly recommended to aid people in getting their sleep cycle regulated.  Melatonin is the hormone responsible in keeping your sleep cycle in balance.  With the use of melatonin, sleep experts will recommend no screen use two hours prior to bed.  This includes television.  When performed together, a person can get their sleep cycle back to normal.

Final thoughts

Technology and digital devices are a part of our society and the financial development of all the nations in the world.  This isn’t going away.  Yet, it is still a relatively new addition to our way of life; thus, the consequences and effects of it on our brain and bodies still requires further research. Some scientists feel that this just an adjustment period of society and the effects will wane over time.  Currently, the data does give credence as to why scientists are warning parents about screen dependency; given the various memes, cartoons, jokes, and comments made regarding the heavy use of these devices, this concern has gained societal awareness.

As with anything in life, moderation is key. Make sure to help eliminate screen dependency and limit your child’s screen time (and yours as well). If your child is under high school age, you should have rules about how long they can stay on a device per day. Stress to them the importance of socializing, exercising, reading books, and living a healthy lifestyle in general.

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