What is Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS), and is it a Legitimate Disorder?

Kids are exposed more and more to handheld technology and screens at a young age, causing many to wonder what the effects of excessive screen time will be in years to come.

For children under five years old, the World Health Organization recommends either limited screen time or no screen time at all.

In 2012, psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D. published her thoughts and research on a potential new disorder she calls Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). She claims ESS is an unrecognized mental disorder in children directly caused by screen time.

 Evidence has been presented both in support of and against Electronic Screen Syndrome.

Electronic Screen Syndrome 

ESS’s main characteristic is dysregulation: the inability to appropriately regulate one's mood, attention, or level of arousal for their environment. 

Dunckley's position is when overstimulated by screen usage, children's nervous systems go into fight-or-flight mode, also known as the acute stress response. Author for verywellmind.com, Kendra Cherry, MS, writes, " The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. When we are under threat, the response prepares the body to either fight or flee."  

In part, Dr. Dunckley’s argument becomes: video games and negative social media interactions trigger children's fight-or-flight response, which later confuses the mind and body when introduced to real-world stimuli. 

A child diagnosed with ESS symptoms includes depression, low frustration tolerance, irritability, tantrums, poor eye contact, poor sportsmanship, poor short-term memory, insomnia, and learning difficulties.

Many of the symptoms shown in children who Dunckley believes could be diagnosed with ESS are similar to those found in other disorders, such as ADHD, autism, and childhood bipolar disorder.

Suggested treatment is an electronic fast, strict removal of all electronic media for three or four weeks. Severe cases may require longer fasts. After the fast, Dunckley says that symptoms may return as electronic media is reintroduced. While some children can tolerate screen usage in moderation, others relapse immediately once re-exposed to screens.

Evidence for ESS Being a Disorder

After observing the stressful effects of electronic media on young people for over a decade, Dunckley has prescribed an electronic fast for more than 500 of her patients, including children, teens, and young adults. 

She has also extended this electronic fasting program to the general population, treating young people without preexisting psychiatric disorders.

The fast, if done correctly, is effective about 80% of the time and reduces symptoms by at least half in children who have ESS along with another underlying psychiatric disorder.

Dunckley says that there is often a complete resolution of ESS symptoms following an electronic fast in the general population.

By directly addressing ESS with this technique, she says that patients have shown less aggression, brighter moods, improved grades, and increased compliance.

But, is ESS a Legitimate Disorder?

Most other psychiatrists do not accept ESS. Organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest limited screen time for children concerned about adequate time to eat, sleep, play, talk, or study if they use electronics.

There have been no comparison studies done to see if the symptoms associated with ESS occur as frequently in people who do not use electronic devices, making it difficult to know if ESS is a genuinely legitimate disorder. 

The same symptoms found in children with ESS occur in people who are professionally diagnosed with different disorders. 

Adding to the skepticism and confusion, other possible factors often contribute to the symptoms displayed by children with ESS, suggesting further studies and research relating to Electronic Screen Syndrome are required. 

Reduce Screen Time 

What do you think about ESS?

Since there is evidence both for and against its legitimacy, it's essential to consider how it may or may not impact you and your family.

The symptoms shown in children with ESS are present in many children, and monitoring screen time could be a way to determine if that is the leading cause of the symptoms.

Observe the way increased screen time affects you or the people around you and make your own decision.

Regardless of whether or not ESS is a legitimate disorder, screen time still affects our health in numerous ways.

Tracking your habits and monitoring how you use screen time is an effective way to answer many of the questions you may have. 

Fight the Suck. Planournal.  


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