Screen-time and Children: Does your child put down his gadget without tears?

Is your child unable to put down his gadget without fight, tears, or yelling? Learn from an award-winning global screen-time expert how you can handle this new ‘menace’. It’s a ParentCircle Exclusive.

By Dr Meghna Singhal

Screen-time and Children: Does your child put down his gadget without tears?

Over the last year or so, in almost every conference that I have attended, parents have rushed to me with questions on gadget addiction. Across households, ‘screen-time’ is leading to ‘scream-time’. There is a growing concern on the harmful impact of screen-time on a child’s brain growth and development. So, how can you, as a parent, handle this gadget ‘explosion’ in your household? To answer this and more, we have with us, Dr. Victoria Dunckley, an integrative child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time.

Dunckley has conducted extensive studies to understand the impact of screen-time on brain health and development. She coined the term ‘Electronic Screen Syndrome’ to describe how electronics can overstimulate and detune a child’s nervous system, causing mood, sleep, and behavioural disturbances.

Here are excerpts from a truly engaging conversation. It’s a ParentCircle Exclusive:

Thank you, Dr. Dunckley for agreeing to do this interview with us. First up, in your book ‘Reset your Child’s Brain’ you assert that screens make children ‘wired and tired’. That’s an interesting point…
Screens ‘excite’ the nervous system, visually, cognitively, and psychologically. Because screen activities provide unnatural and intense stimulation, the brain interprets this as a form of stress, which triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. (Also known as ‘survival mode’). Each encounter with a screen releases stress hormone, raises blood pressure, and increases alertness. This, in turn, disturbs sleep and drains our mental reserves. In addition, ‘fight or flight’ is meant to be accompanied by a massive discharge of energy—e.g. by running or fighting off a predator—but typically screen-time is accompanied by lots of sitting and stillness! Thus, over time, screens create a picture of a child who is exhausted from not getting good rest, yet revved up because of stress hormones. And what does a tired child do? They seek more stimulation to stay awake and engaged, thereby creating a vicious cycle.
Another mechanism that exacerbates all this is the blue light effect. Screens emit bright light with lots of blue and white tones, mimicking the sky. This tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime when it’s not, and this, in turn, desynchronizes the body clock. Bright light and blue light also suppress melatonin, the sleep hormone normally released by darkness. Melatonin, in turn, helps regulate hormones, keeps brain inflammation in check, and helps protect our DNA. So, having chronically suppressed melatonin has plenty of downstream effects.

Not just sleep disturbances, you also mention that screens are responsible for producing mood disturbances as well as a host of other psychiatric conditions including ADHD…
In addition to raising stress hormones and disrupting sleep, screen-time releases dopamine, the ‘feel good’ chemical. Over time, repeated dopamine release desensitizes dopamine receptors, so the reward pathways essentially become worn out and stop working. Screen-time also overstimulates the sensory system (especially visually) and causes certain areas in the brain to ‘fire’ more often in an erratic manner. In many ways, screen-time acts like a stimulant, not unlike cocaine, amphetamines, or caffeine.
Eventually, all of these impacts overwhelm the brain and ‘short-circuit’ the brain's frontal lobe--the most developed part of the brain that makes us human. This happens, in part, by the shifting of blood flow away from the frontal lobe and toward the deeper, more primitive parts of the brain.
Thus, any or all of the frontal lobe's functions can be impaired. This includes mood regulation, focus and executive functioning (getting things done), impulse control, creativity, and even things like kindness and empathy. In short, this produces what I call ‘Electronic Screen Syndrome’-- an irritable, depressed or anxious child who has trouble focusing and completing tasks, who is defiant, impulsive, and unmotivated. The family feels like they're ‘walking around on eggshells’, and the child is often struggling in school or not performing up to his or her potential. These children often have poor eye contact and may be ‘sore losers’ when playing games. They may have trouble making or keeping friends, and trusting people, in general, because they're in a defensive state. The picture can look exactly like ADHD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, a learning disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, or even psychosis.
Thus, screen-time can mimic or exacerbate virtually any psychiatric disorder and many neurological disorders (such as tics or autism), too. This makes it critical to rule out screen-time effects when considering diagnosis and treatment, especially medication. Children suffering from screen-time effects are often receiving treatment or educational resources that aren’t working.

You recently likened the Tech Industry to the Big Tobacco. What is the relationship between adults smoking cigarettes and children watching iPads?
The tech industries--which range from video gaming, social media, communications/smart phones, to ‘EdTech’, all use sophisticated psychological tactics to keep the user engaged for as long as possible, and to keep them coming back for more. In other words, they use techniques to get young people hooked to it at an early age so that they'll be lifelong customers. The tech industries and the tobacco industries both use addictive substances (or activities) AND use potent marketing techniques to get kids and their parents hooked. For example, a statement like ‘your child needs to use technology early and often to compete in the 21st century’ exploits parents’ wish for their children to be successful and not be left behind or left out. The tech industries also publicly rebuke and cast doubt on scientific data showing negative effects, just like the tobacco industry did.

Are all kinds of screen-time equally harmful? Common sense says that violent video games may be the most harmful variety whereas educational apps are actually useful.
While violent video games do seem to have unique negative effects, research shows that total screen-time is better indicator than type of screen-time or type of content. And if you consider the mechanisms I mention above, such as the blue light, dopamine release, intense sensory stimulation, and the mismatch of stress effects with being sedentary, these occur with all types of screen-time no matter what the content--including educational!
The biggest difference in ‘type’ of screen-time is passive vs interactive, with interactive screen-time being more disruptive to sleep, focus, and mood, as well as being more addictive. This is counter-intuitive to what most people think, but my observations with my patients and emerging research backs this up.

How can parents know about ‘excessive screen-time’? Is it just the duration of use (e.g., number of hours) or is there something more to it?
Duration or number of hours per day or week is good to track but doesn’t give you a definitive answer for how much is too much for a given child. Ideally, this would be determined by implementing a 4-week screen fast while monitoring certain problematic areas. Then, if desired, the family can reintroduce screens at much lower ‘doses’ and then watch and see if symptoms or dysfunctions returns. Some children might be okay with an hour or two per day (although even that much will affect posture and vision), while more sensitive children can’t tolerate even a few hours a week of so-called educational screen-time.

In your book, you talk about a 4-week electronic fast. How does that work for families?
Essentially, this means no interactive screen-time for 4 weeks minimum. That means no video games, iPad/tablet use, or smartphones. No social media, texting, looking at photos on a phone, no laptop use, etc. We allow school-based computer use if necessary, but it’s to be done in a common area, as early as possible in the day, and without any media multi-tasking. For some children school-based screen-time is the biggest source of screens, and for those children I’ll sometimes write a doctor’s note to request the school respect the 4-week electronic fast. I do allow 5 hours or less per week of TV or movies, provided it’s slow-paced, non-animated, and watched on a regular TV across the room (i.e. not on an iPad). There are lots of steps to be taken for planning these activities and making sure everyone is on the same page. This is outlined in detail in the book, as well as troubleshooting steps if the child doesn’t seem to be ‘resetting’ within four weeks. After the brain, child, and family has reset, then we determine whether we’ll continue being screen-free as possible, or whether we’ll try reintroducing, going very slowly and tracking along the way. Whether to continue with abstinence or to reintroduce depends on a lot of things, including how the vulnerable the child is: how many risk factors do they have? How addicted are they? Are they likely to relapse? etc.

Will parents also need to undertake this fast with their children? How do you address parents’ concern regarding their office work (done using electronic devices) if they have to be on an electronic fast?
The entire family should do the Reset together; this helps the child feel they’re not being punished and that it’s really out of love. The parents and older children may have different rules, but everyone has some rules, and if they’re broken, then that family member--including the parents--have to pay a ‘tax’ like contributing money or planning a special dinner or activity of the child’s choice. Parents and siblings should avoid using screens, including phones, in front of the child as this can be a trigger. If a parent does need to use a device in front of the children, it should be for a prescribed time only that they parent needs to honour, and again, should ideally be out of sight. This means evenings and dinner time should be screen-free...as it should always be!

In a family with children of different ages, how can parents ensure fairness in implementing the electronic fast when one child may be using screens excessively, whereas the other may not be?All the children in the house should be doing the same thing. This is similar to how we treat families when one child is a diabetic...there shouldn’t be any sweets in the house, and everyone eats the same way. What I find is that if the other siblings aren’t too attached to their devices, they don’t mind this ‘fast’ much. Again, the message is that the child is loved and that they whole family needs to shift how they spend their time. Doing it this way also helps all the children to start playing together again, being more creative and physical, and spending more time outdoors.

The 4-week fast may seem extreme to some families who may believe that moderation is the key. What would you say to these families?
If moderation is working for a particular family, then that’s fine. But how do we know if it’s working or not? I look at a few key areas: 

  1. Ease of screen management: Are there arguments or fights over screen-time? Can your child put down their device or gadget without fight, tears, or yelling?
  2. Mental and physical health: Are the children able to regulate their mood and handle daily stressors? Are they organized, on task, and performing academically to their potential? Do they have friends they see face to face? Are they comfortable with eye contact and conversing with adults? Are they physically active and in good condition?
  3. Daily functioning: Are they doing chores and doing them well? Are they keeping their room clean? Are they able to follow rules? If they are struggling in any of these areas, they’ll almost always benefit from a screen fast.

How can parents motivate themselves to regulate their own screen-time use?
The more people understand how screens affect the brain, the more motivated they are to control their own use. If someone has to be on a computer all day at work it’s even more important to get rid of all entertainment-based screen-time, and to avoid all interactive screen-time in the evening, especially near bedtime.

  • Turn off your notifications and put your phone in another room when you come home from work
  • Try having one screen-free day a week
  • Plan your down time with screen-free leisure activities so you don’t resort to your phone the minute you’re bored or are looking for an escape
  • And check in with your children about how they feel about your screen use. Most kids, even teenagers, will say they feel ignored by their parents’ device use. Have this conversation without defending or justifying your use; just listen, validate your child’s feelings, and problem-solve to fix it. This may mean following new rules, spending more one-on-one time with the child, or doing more family activities together (being phone-free, of course!) Research shows that bonding and time spent together is protective against technology overuse. Bonding literally replaces and strengthens the brain pathways that screens attempt to hijack.

In a Nutshell

  • Each encounter with a screen releases stress hormone, raises blood pressure, and increases alertness. This, in turn, disturbs sleep and drains our mental reserves
  • Symptoms of excess screen-time can mimic any psychiatric condition. Termed ‘Electronic screen syndrome’ by Dr. Dunckley, the picture is of an irritable, depressed or anxious child who has trouble focusing and completing tasks, who is defiant, impulsive, and unmotivated
  • A 4-week screen fast is recommended for such children. It entails not using any electronic devices together as a family for a duration of four weeks. This ‘fast’ enables resetting of the brain

What you can do right away

  • Turn off your notifications and put your phone in another room when you come home from work
  • Plan your down time with screen-free leisure activities so you don’t resort to your phone the minute you’re bored

About Dr. Victoria Dunckley

  • An integrative child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist with twelve years’ clinical experience in both the public and private sectors
  • Her areas of specialisation include tics/Tourette Syndrome, reactive attachment disorder, weight issues related to medication, ADHD, sensory integration issues, trauma/abuse, and mood disorders including bipolar disorder
  • Boarded by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine
  • In 2011, was named one of America’s Top Psychiatrists by the Consumer Research Council and won several patient care awards, including Vitals.com’s Patient’s Choice and Compassionate Doctor awards
  • An active blogger for Psychology Today and speaker to both parents’ groups and clinicians

About the author:
Interviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 22 October 2019. Reviewed on 15 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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