The Effects of Electronic Screen Time on the Developing Brain
Implementing a 4 week screen fast could help your child improve their mood, sleep and focus. We’re beginning to understand how time spent using screens on phones, tablets, and video game consoles negatively impacts developing brains. Dr. Victoria Dunckley has coined the term Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) to describe the symptoms of kids who are being adversely affected by screens. According to her clinical experience as a psychiatrist ESS can mimic or aggravate conditions like anxiety, depression and ADHD. The information in this article is adapted from her book Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Melt-downs, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Syndrome.
There are three primary pathways through which screens negatively impact kids: eyes, brain, and body.
Screens Impact on Eyes
1. Visual stimulating images can cause sensory overload.
2. Increase in electrical signals can contribute to erratic nerve firing (e.g. pokemon show in Japan where kids had seizures) resulting in tics, seizures, and migraines.
3. Intense lighting can disrupt the body’s natural circadian rhythm and suppress the production of melatonin which helps us sleep.
Screens Impact on the Brain
1. Screens activate the dopamine reward system in the brain creating high levels of dopamine. When screens are taken away dopamine drops which can result in irritability, poor focus, and mood swings.
2. In a state of high arousal blood flow shifts from the front lobe to the lower brain which can stunt development of executive functioning (planning, delayed gratification, impulse control, and social skills)
3. Rapidly changing images (panning, zooming, cutting) can activate the orienting response which over stimulates the brain which can contribute to non-restorative sleep, and body clock disruption.
Screens Impact on the Body
1. Stagnation of blood flow (from inactivity) can lead to weight gain, reduced nutrient absorption, and repressed energy.
2. Activation of fight–flight can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and reduce blood flow to gut and other organs, and contribute to a suppressed immune system.
3. Prolonged sitting and repetitive movements can lead to muscle atrophy, repetitive stress injuries, blood clots, and neck and back strain.
Why Do A Screen Fast?
The best way to find out how much screens are negatively impacting your child is to do a screen fast. This involves removing access to all screens for a period of 4 weeks (or sometimes longer for older teens). This is similar to an elimination diet where you completely remove a certain food from your grocery list to see if it is having negative effects on your health. After removing screens completely you will start to notice positive changes in your child over the following days and weeks. Here are some changes you may notice.
Benefits of a Screen Fast
- Improved mood
- Decreased Anxiety
- Better Sleep
- Reduced Irritability
- Increased Focus
Preparing to do the Screen Fast
If you are considering doing a screen fast I highly recommend buying Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s book. However this article summarizes some of the points from the book and tips for success. Start by getting a notebook to track your child’s progress and symptoms. This will help to keep you motivated as you can notice positive changes as they occur. Pick a few things to track such as hours of sleep, or number of arguments you have with your child per day. Recruit others from your community to support you and limit opportunities for your child to use screens elsewhere.
Brainstorm with your child different activities they can do during the screen fast. These might include physical activities, creative projects, and activities you can do together. If you have other children get everyone to do the fast together so the child who is the focus of the fast doesn’t feel singled out. Try to limit your own screen use as much as possible to model the behaviour you are asking your child to do. Make a list of all the screens your child has access to, and prepare to have a place to remove them to during the fast such as your workplace or a family member’s home. If you keep them in the house your child will find them and figure out how to access them.
The Electronic Fast (Digital Detox)
Tell your child about the fast 2 days before implementing it to give them some time to process. Your child’s reaction to the fast will almost certainly be negative. Listen to their concerns, but don’t engage in arguing or negotiating. If they become upset, validate their feelings and comfort him or her but hold your ground. Be clear and calm and highlight other activities and special treats that will replace screen-time. If you are concerned about your child’s safety, make a safety plan with the support of a health professional.
It’s ok to allow 30 minutes of TV in the evening as long as the programs aren’t stimulating. If they need to use screens for school minimize this as much as possible, and print out assignments where feasible. The first week of the fast is the hardest, but it immediately sets into motion a chain of positive events that influence circadian rhythms and brain chemistry, whether you see outward signs of improvement or not.
The second and third weeks become easier, and improvements in symptoms and functioning become more evident, sometimes dramatically so. Near the end of the fast consider next steps, some children who show fewer improvements may need a longer fast, especially if they are teenagers and use screens for many hours per day.
Tracking Progress and Troubleshooting
It’s important to track progress to help keep you motivated and determine the impact of the fast. If you don’t measure results you may determine that the fast didn’t work when in fact it did. If you aren’t seeing the expected improvement troubleshoot other potential reasons before deciding the fast didn’t work.
Some issues that could diminish the positive effects of a fast include missed screen devices or opportunities, insufficient fast length. Loosening rules over time can also negate the positive impact of a screen fast, or if your child is using his classmates phones at school. In some children, television viewing may need to be reduced further or even eliminated for best results.
Dealing with Doubt and Getting Support
You will probably face some doubt throughout this process, this normal. When the pro’s and con’s of a fast think about the potential positive outcomes over the short-term difficulties. Relying electronics as a “babysitter” in general is common, but if this is being used too often you may need to get more support from family and friends before considering doing the fast.
Building support for the Reset takes time and effort, but it prevents burnout, and greatly improves your chances of success. One way to get support is to recruit another family to do the fast at the same time, especially if your children are friends. Also remind yourself that this is an experiment, if you feel it wasn’t effective you can always go back to what you were doing before.
What to do After the Fast
Depending on how your child responded to the fast should guide your decision on how much screen time they can have afterwards. Dr. Dunckley suggests starting small, 30 minutes per day, and doing that for one month before increasing again. How much screen time a child can tolerate is highly specific to the child. When reintroducing screen-time, it should be earned as a privilege, and come after responsibilities such as homework and chores are completed.
Over time the amount of screen time your child has will change based on development, age, and their overall health. If you are unsure where to draw the line err on the side of less screen time, as this will help their brain functioning and overall development.
In my work as a counsellor with children and youth I have witnessed how too much screen time can contribute to disrupted sleep patterns and poor mental health outcomes. If you don’t want to do a full screen fast at the very least remove screens at night so you child can get enough rest. Here are some tips for how to help your child get a good nights sleep.