Screen Time Is Making Our Kids Moody!
Children or teens who are “revved up” and prone to rages or—alternatively—who are depressed and apathetic have become disturbingly common sights in public spaces. Chronically irritable children are often in a state of abnormally high arousal, and may seem “wired and tired.”
Chronically high arousal levels impact memory and the ability to relate. The kids are agitated but exhausted. Kids that are overly stimulated are also likely to struggle academically and socially.
A child with these symptoms may be given a diagnosis such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, and offered corresponding treatments and medication. Kids overstimulated by screen time do not warrant this diagnosis and therefore the treatments don’t work very well in this situation. Your child is then overly stimulated and on prescription drugs that are not achieving anything. It is just a slippery slope downhill!
What’s happening? Both parents and clinicians may be “barking up the wrong tree.” That is, they’re trying to treat what looks like a textbook case of mental disorder, but failing to rule out and address the most common environmental cause of such symptoms—everyday use of electronics. Time and again, whether any “true” underlying diagnoses exist or not, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an “electronics fast”—to allow the nervous system to “reset.”
Dr. Dunkley explains from his experience, "If done correctly, this intervention can produce deeper sleep, a brighter and more even mood, better focus and organization, and an increase in physical activity. The ability to tolerate stress improves, so meltdowns diminish in both frequency and severity. The child begins to enjoy the things they used to, is more drawn to nature, and imaginary or creative play returns. In teens and young adults, an increase in self-directed behavior is observed—the exact opposite of apathy and hopelessness. It’s a beautiful thing."
An electronic fast goes hand in hand in many cases with improved sleep, more exercise, and more face-to-face contact with others. After a fast, once the brain is reset, parents can carefully determine how much if any electronics use their child can tolerate without symptoms returning.
But why is the electronic fast intervention so effective?
Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track.
Here are five physiological mechanisms that explain electronics’ tendency to produce mood disturbance:
1. Screen time disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock.
Because light from screen devices mimics daytime, it suppresses melatonin, a sleep signal released by darkness. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize the body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation.
Research has also shown light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk.
2. Screen time desensitizes the brain’s reward system.
Many children are “hooked” on electronics, due to the dopamine—“feel-good” chemical—that their brains create during gameplay. Brain scans of children with large amounts of dopamine can be compared to brain scans of others high on cocaine. When reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience a reward. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation in a successfully functioning adult.
3. Screen time induces stress reactions.
Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Indeed, cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression—creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyperarousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.
4. Screen time overloads the sensory system, fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves.
Often what's behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment. This causes small, insignificant demands to become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.
5. Screen-time reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.”
Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. Thus, time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers.
In today’s world, it may seem crazy to restrict electronics so drastically. But when kids are struggling, leaving electronics in place is not helping them. An electronics fast can be the first step in helping a child become calmer, stronger, and happier. Perhaps we should do it with our kids, when last did you go without your own screen time?