Behavior Concerns Excessive Screen Time May Worsen

A sad little girl, maybe 5 or 6, hunched at the bottom of a staircase, her head buried in her arms and resting on her folded knees.

Many of us these days can relate to getting sucked into our Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook accounts. Intending to spend only a few minutes, we instead find ourselves surprised,  frustrated, or even shocked afterward to realize how much time we committed to scrolling aimlessly. 

Young people are certainly not immune either. In fact, they are even more susceptible to the addictive programming behind much of the digital material they consume, unable to help prioritizing TikTok, Snapchat, or gaming consoles over homework or physical activities. 

Do we really, truly, want to know how exposure to screens impacts us all? And, what, if any, the long term effects may be?

As the cliché goes, “better safe than sorry.” 

Screen Time

What does ‘Screen time’ mean? Screen time is all the time in a day spent engaging with digital devices: televisions, computers, tablets, and mobile devices. Given how intertwined the use of screens have become with our daily routines, it behooves us to take a serious look at the potential impact of their mismanaged use. 

A great deal of research has been done on the impact of screen time on people, but with the expansion of technology in our lives, researchers have trouble staying ahead. It is well-known, however, that short-lived dopamine loops are built into many of the applications we find on our phones and other devices. Social media and idle games have high incentives to keep us focused through intermittent reinforcement so that they can continue advertising.

The same neurological and emotional mechanisms that keep us checking a new Instagram or Facebook post for likes and comments keep children focused on finding the next YouTube or Tiktok video to watch or game to succeed at. Or, making it seemingly impossible to shut our devices down at night, causing interference with our circadian rhythm, the body's biological clock, and interfering with the four stages of sleep that are required to obtain the restorative sleep we need to maintain good health

As adults it is assumed we can self-regulate (which if course is not always the case). Children, however, are much less likely to understand or recognize the  impact screen time has on their mood and interactions with others. And given the confusing, inconsistent, and suspect sources coming from the media as to what is and is not considered a “safe” amount of screen time, we are left to figure it out ourselves. 

A Few Behavioral Concerns

Do understand that screen time does not cause the concerns below; but, it can exacerbate them.  Monitor for these in the context of screen time to understand how to help yourself or your child. 

Difficulties with Attention

A Canadian study found that children who spend 2 or more hours a day in front of a screen were much more likely than children with less daily use to meet the criteria for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.  

ADHD is a very common childhood neurodevelopmental diagnosis and has a number of treatment options. Many of the behavioral treatment options that are successful in helping children with ADHD, including physical activity outside, eating quality foods, and getting adequate sleep, are actively interfered with by continued screen time. 

Perhaps more concerning, as pointed out by Victoria L. Dunckley, MD, in Rest Your Child’s Brain as she discusses Electronic Screen Syndrome, “Because screen-time affects dopamine regulation, frontal lobe activity, sleep, and stress levels, ESS can look exactly like ADD—and will most certainly worsen ADD if it preexists.”  

Lack of Bonding Time

We’ve known for many years that reading aloud to children improves their connection to parental figures, language, and listening skills. Screen time introduces another roadblock to this bonding time and other in-person social activities, the impacts of which can last for years afterward in young children especially. 

Setting aside a portion of the day specifically for reading aloud--whether this means reading to your small child, having them read as they learn, or taking turns--is a potential solution to this. Making this a part of your bedtime routine can increase bonding, ensure your child is not exposed to blue light close to their bedtime, and help build a foundation for healthy sleep habits as they grow older. 

Increased Depression and Anxiety

One undergraduate study found that girls in the United States had higher rates of depression and anxiety over the course of 2010 to 2015, during which they increasingly spent leisure time in front of screens. 

Constant exposure to the sometimes caustic environment online coupled with comparing oneself to influencers’ and even friends’ posts is damaging for anyone, especially impressionable young people who are in a stage of life most influenced by their peers. While this is more likely a concern for teenagers and young adults, this is an important time to check in with your child, celebrate with them and ensure they develop healthy habits with social media and other venues. 

Here to Help

Making habit changes is difficult, and obviously impossible if we don’t recognize there is a problem to begin with. For many of us, a state of denial about how much junk screen time we consume a day is where we ignorantly live. Comfortably numb watching vast amounts of arbitrary minutes sucked away into a mesmerizing pixelated reality that is arguably not real. 

Give yourself and your family a screen time check-up by exploring and monitoring your screen time for 30 days with a Binge Battle Screen Time planournal. Take a candid look at how you prioritize your time each day and reduce or replace some of the time spent in front of a screen to instead consider the state and strength of your wellbeing. 

Fight the Suck. Planournal. 

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