You don’t need an expert to tell you that children are spending more time than ever before immersed in technology and the digital world. The amount of time they spend outdoors is sharply declining as the amount of time they spend on iPads, games consoles and smartphones increases. Although it is undoubtedly adaptive to be tech-savvy and computer literate in the modern world, this level of screen time is also bringing with it an array of negative health consequences. Childhood obesity has sky- rocketed across the Western world with sports engagement and fitness levels dropping.
Some psychologists are also arguing that not only is this digital overload affecting kids physically, but it is also having negative consequences for their mental health. The past decade has seen a rise in the number of children diagnosed with issues relating to memory, concentration and even depression. Now, some theorists claim that this may be partially rooted in the home environment, particularly the amount of time they spend using technology.
So could there be any truth in this, and how does technology influence the young mind?
1. Exposure to Screens Disrupts the Body Clock
When the body and mind begin to feel ready to sleep, that’s when you know the chemical “melatonin” has been released. This chemical is released when we exerted ourselves enough to be tired, and when we become aware that the day is winding down. Since screens mimic sunlight, they disrupt our perception of time and subsequently the amount of melanin we produce. Poring over an iPad before bedtime therefore, is terribly disruptive to our sleep patterns and body clock. Sleep is such an important factor in terms of our mood and mental health, so anything that affects it adversely is worth worrying about. Try to cut out screen time a couple of hours before bed, and develop a consistent routine. When the body clock is disrupted it can lead to irritability, hormone imbalance and weight gain so it’s important to ensure every child keeps a balance.
2. Technology Can be Addictive
Another chemical worth mentioning is called “dopamine”; this chemical is part of our reward system and makes us feel good. Unfortunately, it is also associated with addiction as the brain needs more and more to induce a reaction. Scientists have found that dopamine is released during gaming, and that increased use of video games causes the individual to crave more screen time (Kuhn, 2011). This finding indicates that some children may actually be addicted to technology. This might explain the irritability and tantrums demonstrated by some children when parents attempt to remove or reduce game- time. Like any process that can be addictive, it’s important to be aware of usage and any bad habits.
3. Excessive Screen Time can Damage Attention Span
Studies have found that spending too much time in front of the television may DOUBLE the risk of attention problems in young adults and children (Swing,. Excessive time was designated two hours or more. The research time find that those over the two hour limit were 1.6 - 2.2 times more likely to have difficulty focusing. While technology use was measured in the home, attention problems were measured in the school. These included interrupting other children, paying attention in class and being able to focus on assignments. The study also identified that middle school students spend a staggering 4.26 hours per day, on average, watching TV or playing video games. When children are immersed in the virtual world for such a large part of their day they do not find day- to-day tasks exciting enough and their mind is no longer able to focus. In addition, children are used to be rewarded quickly and immediately i.e. reaching another level in a videogame. So anything that requires long term input is difficult for the mind to grasp.
4. Screen Time Reduces Time Outdoors
Spending time outdoors is a natural part of childhood and should be encouraged. We’ve all seen the calming effect a walk in the park can have on kids or how a day spent out playing results in a tired but happy child. Just like adults, kids need exercise and time outside to improve mood and have fun. Spending time with nature can reduce stress and aggression dramatically, so it is important that we allow this to happen. If you try to help your kids unwind in the same way, by allowing them to watch TV before bed etc. it simply will not work as well. Try to set limits to the amount of time your child can spend on technology at the weekends and factor in some outdoor activities instead.
5. Screen Time Influences how we Respond to Stress
Spending too much time in front of a screen influences cortisol levels (the stress chemical) and this in turn influences how we react to stressful situations. This change in brain chemistry can make us more irritable and less able to process any internal or external demands healthily. For example, your child may respond with a temper tantrum to a minor inconvenience because they simply cannot properly process what is happening. An unhealthy ebb and flow of cortisol may also cause depression which could potentially be another by- product of too much screen time.
It’s clear that our modern obsession with the screen can have a worrying effect on the developing mind. Too much time in the digital realm can damage children’s ability to focus at school, their physical health and even their happiness.
We all want our kids to be competent using the internet and to have basic computer skills, but hours spent gaming and watching TV can be truly damaging.
It’s hard to prove the claims of scientists that screen time may be linked to ADHD, but it is apparent that we should place a limit on technology and help kids to be kids for a little while longer.
Kühn, S., Romanowski, A., Schilling, C., Lorenz, R., Mörsen, C., Seiferth, N., ... & Conrod, P. J. (2011). The neural basis of video gaming. Translational psychiatry, 1(11), e53.
Swing, E. L., Gentile, D. A., Anderson, C. A., & Walsh, D. A. (2010). Television and video game exposure and the development of attention problems. Pediatrics, 126(2), 214-221.