Health Matters: Excessive Screen Time Linked to Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Obesity in Children
Children are constantly exposed to screens these days, whether they’re texting with friends, watching YouTube videos or playing online video games. Several decades ago, the only screen in the home was the family television; today, we have tablets, smartphones, laptops, electronic games and more. As research tries to catch up with the exponential rise in technology, initial studies indicate that too much time in front of screens can have serious behavioral, physical and emotional consequences.
According to studies by the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Common Sense, U.S. teens spend an average of nine hours in front of a screen every day! Children under the age of 8 spend nearly two and a half hours, and almost a third of children under 2 years of age have a television in their bedroom.
A whole slew of new medical conditions related to screen time have been defined in recent years, including “Computer Vision Syndrome,” which involves eye strain, irritation, dryness and blurred vision.
Perhaps the most noticeable effect of excessive screen time is the staggering increase in childhood obesity. More than a third of American children are either overweight or obese, increasing the risk of diabetes and hypertension and low self-esteem.
Another worrisome trend is the use of technology before bed, which is associated with less sleep, worse sleep quality, and more fatigue the next day. Exposure to the blue light from screens can disrupt the circadian (natural day/night) rhythm by getting in the way of the normal production of melatonin.
One of the most concerning impacts of screen time is the effect on our children’s mental and emotional health. Regular, frequent screen time can overstimulate and hyper-arouse the developing child’s brain, effectively short circuiting the frontal lobe.
Child psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Dunckley termed the condition “Electronic Screen Syndrome” to characterize this disorder of dysregulation. Children can exhibit irritability, anxiety, depression, excessive tantrums, and impairments at school, home or with peers. Some children even experience short-term memory problems and cognitive decline. Many pediatric clinicians attribute excessive screen time and inadequate outdoor time to rising rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and even oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). The developing child’s brain gets wired to crave constant stimulation and the child has difficulty coping when the stimulation is withheld.
Technology use can even become an addiction, a constant craving that takes priority over negative consequences. The user gets irritable when not using their screen, negatively impacting their health and their relationships with others. When experiencing stress, the user turns to screens for relief, which causes a surge in dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Children get hooked on the repetitive surge of dopamine to the point that some teens check their social media hundreds of times a day!
Rising rates of depression and anxiety in children are complexly correlated with excessive screen time. Because of the 24/7 availability of screens and social media, children have fewer opportunities to take a mental break from society and for their mind to have rest and quiet. Kids have less time to think, to process, to reflect. Furthermore, kids are spending more time in impersonal social media “relationships” than physically spending time with others. A recent study by UCLA found that excessive screen time can inhibit children’s ability to recognize emotions. It decreases face to face interaction and increases exposure to cyberbullying, which can lead to feelings of isolation and low self esteem.
Several residential rehabilitation programs have popped up around the country, mostly in rural settings, to help teens break their addiction and heal.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a firm stance on screen time, recommending less than 2 hours of screen time for children ages 3 to 18 and no screen time for children younger than 2 years of age (with the exception of video chatting with relatives). They strongly discourage having televisions and computers in a child’s room and encourage turning all other screens off at least an hour prior to bedtime.
Today’s young children have not known life without screen use and seeing adults constantly use screens normalizes the behavior. As parents, teachers, caregivers and role models, we can help children tremendously by setting good examples. We can put away all screens during mealtimes and during family time. We don’t have to rush to our phones when we hear the text alert. Instead of turning on the TV, we can do a puzzle, play a board or card game, read a book, draw, turn on some music, cook, take a bubble bath, go for a walk, or any number of other non-electronic activities.
For more information check out First Five Mendocino (www.mendochildren.org) and their “Screen-Free Kids” resources. They even have a printable list of “101 Screen-Free Activities” that is handy for parents to post on their fridge.
Dr. Johnson is a pediatrician at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.