Put Down the Phone

iPads little girl with white background human

Research shows excess use of electronic devices may have a lasting impact on childhood development

Written by Jennifer Bishop

In 2019, our children are growing up in a society dominated by iPads, iPhones, TVs, computer screens and other electronic devices. Research suggests that all of this screen time is affecting their brain structures.

A landmark research study being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is seeking to find what effect screen time has on the development of children’s brains. No concrete data has yet to be published, but preliminary patterns have been shared. Researchers from the NIH have found that children who spend more than two hours of screen time per day get lower scores on thinking and language tests.

In addition to brain development, there are also concerns regarding behavior and mental health. In a study completed by Preventive Medicine, researchers at San Diego State University found that children who are exposed to more than one hour of screen time per day are at risk of psychological concerns, such as sleep disturbances, anxiety and depression, addiction, lack of focus and impulse control, and social influences.

Here’s the breakdown:

SLEEP: Using electronic devices before bed delays your child’s internal clock (circadian rhythm), which then suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, and makes it more difficult to sleep. Additionally, this delays the onset of REM sleep and compromises alertness the next morning.

ANXIETY/DEPRESSION: The National Institutes of Health estimates that kids are spending an average of five to seven hours a day on recreational screen time—which results in increased anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions compared to previous generations. Electronic devices distract kids from homework, physical activity, family interactions and face-to-face time with peers. Without these fundamental social interactions, kids are growing up unprepared and unable to cope, sometimes creating unhealthy environments for their mental health.

ADDICTION: Screen time is much like sugar when it hits a child’s brain. They both flood the brain with dopamine, the same feel-good chemical released when someone does cocaine or when we see that someone liked our Instagram post. Dopamine feedback loops are self-perpetuating circuits fueled by the way the neurotransmitter works with the brain’s reward system. Dopamine drives and reinforces habits—and habits matter, especially for kids.

LACK OF FOCUS AND IMPULSE CONTROL: Dopamine uptake from increased screen time is weakening children’s impulse control and increasing the demand for instant gratification. Doreen Dodgen-Magee, author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World, says that “this intensified state makes it harder for kids to retain information, achieve in school, socially interact with other peers, self-soothe and regulate their emotions.”

SOCIAL INFLUENCES: On one hand, social media, texting and gaming can provide opportunities for positive experiences, increasing development, positive reinforcement, communication and social interaction. However, the digital world also presents possibilities for social rejection, isolation, unhealthy social comparisons, cyber-bullying, fear of missing out, and exposure to inappropriate content.

So what do we do? Simply turning off the TV or putting down the electronic device may not be enough. As a licensed mental health counselor in Boca Raton, I stress to parents that kids benefit from being physically active, especially when there is time spent in nature. Being active outdoors helps children build strong cognitive and social/mental development, improve sensory skills, increase attention span and increase positive peer/social interactions.

They call it the great outdoors for a reason.

This story is from the January 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.