Electronic Screen Time & Your Child's Well-Being

The 21st century is redefining communication and education. We are interconnected in ways that seemed so fantastic a mere three decades ago. Information is literally at our fingertips and children have a greater voice and choice in their learning. Concurrently, however, statistical trends have emerged that give us pause. In the US, from 1994 – 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder has risen forty-fold. Between 2002 – 2005, ADHD prescriptions rose by 40%. And in 2013, a new diagnosis debuted in the DSM-5: Disruptive Mood Dysregulation disorder. While the turn of this century is characterized by greater emphasis on collaboration, our children are seemingly becoming increasingly isolated and anxious. Is the increasing sense of isolation and anxiety among our children environmentally related?

The biggest change to our children’s environment over the past decade has been technology, and along with it, an increase in electronic screen time. According to a study performed in 2010, children ages 8 – 18 spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen. From 2005 to 2009, cell phone ownership among children doubled, and, according to the most recent data, US teens text over 4000 times a month. Electronic screens are redefining social interaction. Children are increasingly “chatting” with one another via a screen more than in person. This disconnected-connection is present even when they are together. Just go into a restaurant and see how many cell phones are out during dinner.

Beyond affecting social interaction, however, electronic screen time affects mood, cognition, and behavior. Victoria Dunckley, MD suggests that excessive electronic screen time “shifts the nervous system into fight or flight mode.” Science has demonstrated that all screen activity provides unnatural stimulation to the nervous system. Contrary to popular belief, Dr. Dunckley contends that content is not as important as the amount of screen time. The more interactive the screen time (such as video gaming or “chatting” on social media), the more likely it is to affect the child. Interactivity is what keeps the user engaged by providing a sense of control, choice, and immediate gratification. And its physiological effect, too, is immediate. A study in Japan revealed that 30 minutes of screen time can result in sleep disturbance. The electronic screens of personal electronics produce bright light that desynchronizes the body clock, making it difficult for users to have restful sleep, which can, in turn, affect sensory and attention processes. Furthermore, cortisol level is altered, and the body is under stress.

The physiological effect of electronic screen time goes beyond sleep disturbance. The human brain is evolutionarily designed to respond to stimulating visual input. This is what is known as the “orienting response.” It is the very response that helps us to assess a threat. When stimuli are artificially created, the brain’s orienting response gets hijacked, and the brain remains on heightened alert. As a result, the body believes it is under stress, and blood flow to the brain gets shunted away from areas of higher thinking toward the more primitive areas. Attention and focus are affected, executive function skills become impaired, and the body resorts to primitive modes of survival. In school, the child becomes irritable, loses focus, and feels an increased sense of isolation.

What can be done? In Reset Your Child’s Brain, Dr. Dunckley recommends an electronics fast: remove all technology for a period of 4 weeks, giving time for the body clock to synchronize,  hormone levels to restore to normal, and the body to rest. Perhaps that seems impossible given the fact that technology permeates our everyday lives, both at home and, increasingly, at school. What we must keep in mind is that the removal of any activity must be replaced with another, such as hiking, sports, board games, art, books, and pencils.

There are other options. Parents can consider putting parameters. For example, limit game playing to one hour and/or no games before bedtime. Electronic screen time also covers a spectrum: the more interactive, the more significant its impact on the child. Perhaps parameters can be placed on the type of games or activities children do electronically. From the school’s perspective, technology in the classroom must be balanced with writing by hand and reading from books.

Whether it is an electronics fast or a creation of a balance between electronics and other activities, one thing remains clear. We are only beginning to realize that while technology has allowed us to advance in medicine, military, the arts, and engineering, it also has a far-reaching effect on our children’s overall well-being. One teenager said to me, “My friends and I don’t know any other life.” There is truth to those poignant words. Perhaps now more than ever it is important to show what more there is. Chinese philosopher Chuang-tze once said, “A frog that lives in a well cannot conceive of an ocean.” Let’s show our children the ocean.

References: Dunckley, Victoria MD, Reset Your Child’s Brain New World Library 2015

Data quoted from Dr. Dunckley’s book are cited from:  Carmen Morena et al., “National Trends in the Outpatient Diagnosis and Treatment of Bipolar Disorder in Youth,” Archives of General Psychiatry 64, no. 9 (September 2007)

Emily R. Cox et al., “Trend in the Prevalence of Chronic Medication Use in Children: 2002-2005, Pediatrics 122, no. 5 (November 1, 2008)

National Institute of Mental Health https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/disruptive-mood-dysregulation-disorder-dmdd/disruptive-mood-dysregulation-disorder.shtml)

Kaiser Family Foundation Study 2010 https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED527859.pdf 

About the Author

Chantra Reinman

Chantra Reinman is Head of Middle School at The Shipley School. She joined Shipley from The American International School, in Lusaka, Zambia, where she served as a member of the Senior Leadership Team, the Director of Inclusion, and a member of the Child Protection Team. Before this, Chantra was the Assistant Head of School at The Lewis School of Princeton, serving as the Middle and Upper School principal at various times during her time there. With over 27 years of experience teaching English, both domestically and internationally, she brings a wealth of experience to her role, including a commitment to professional development and sharing that knowledge with her communities. Chantra has her Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Bryn Mawr College, her Master of Science from Villanova University, and her Master of Educational Leadership from The College of New Jersey.