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Is your child addicted to gadgets? A four-week screen fast can help reset their brain, says expert

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 14 Mins Read

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal


Is your child unable to put down their gadget without fight, tears or yelling? Learn from an award-winning, global screen-time expert how you can handle this new “menace” of screens

Primary to Pre-teen
Is your child addicted to gadgets? A four-week screen fast can help reset their brain, says expert

Over the last year or so, in almost every conference that I’ve attended, parents have rushed to me with questions on gadget addiction. Across households, “screen time” is leading to “scream time.” There’s a growing concern about 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 L 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. Dr Dunckley has conducted extensive studies to understand the impact of screen time on brain health and development. She coined the phrase “Electronic Screen Syndrome” to describe how electronics can overstimulate a child’s nervous system, causing mood, sleep, and behavioral disturbances.

Here are the excerpts from an exclusive conversation with Dr Dunckley.

Q. 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… 

A. 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 hormones, raises blood pressure and increases alertness. This, in turn, disturbs our 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.

Q. Not just sleep disturbances, you also mentioned that screens are responsible for producing mood disturbances as well as a host of other psychiatric conditions including ADHD… 

A. 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 as a stimulant, not unlike cocaine, amphetamines, or caffeine.

Eventually, all of these effects 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, and 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 their potential. These children often have poor eye contact and maybe “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.

Q. You recently likened the tech industry to the Big Tobacco. What’s the relationship between adults smoking cigarettes and children watching iPads?

A. The tech industries—ranging from video gaming, social media, and communications/smartphones to edtech—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 at an early age so that they’ll be lifelong customers. The tech industry and the tobacco industry 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 industry also publicly rebukes and casts doubt on scientific data showing negative effects, just like the tobacco industry did.

Q. 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. 

A. While violent video games do seem to have unique negative effects, research shows that total screen time is a better indicator than the type of screen time or type of content. And if you consider the mechanisms I mentioned above, such as 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 counterintuitive to what most people think, but my observations with my patients and emerging research back this up.

Q. 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? 

A. 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 four-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 return. 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.

Q. In your book, you spoke about a four-week electronic fast. How does that work for families?

A. Essentially, this means no interactive screen time for four weeks minimum. That means no video games, iPads/tablets, 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 multitasking.

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 to respect the four-week electronic fast. I do allow five hours or less per week of TV or movies, provided it’s slow-paced, nonanimated, 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 have reset, we determine whether we’ll continue being screen-free as possible, or whether we’ll try reintroducing screens, going very slowly and tracking along the way. Whether to continue with abstinence or to reintroduce depends on a lot of things, including how vulnerable the child is: How many risk factors do they have? How addicted are they? Are they likely to relapse?

Q. Will parents also need to undertake this fast with their children? How do you address parents’ concerns regarding their office work (done using electronic devices) if they have to be on an electronic fast?

A. 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—has 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 and, again, should ideally be out of sight. This means evenings and dinnertime should be screen-free, as they should always be!

Q. 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? 

A. All the children in the house should be doing the same thing. This is similar to how we treat families when one child is 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 the 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.

Q. The four-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:

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?

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?

Daily functioning: Are they doing chores and doing them well? Are they keeping their room clean? Are they able to follow rules? If they’re struggling in any of these areas, they’ll almost always benefit from a screen fast.

Q. How can parents motivate themselves to regulate their own screen-time use? 

A. The more people understand how screens affect the brain, the more motivated they’re 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 downtime 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 are 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 hormones, raises blood pressure and increases alertness. This, in turn, disturbs our sleep and drains our mental reserves.
  • Symptoms of excessive screen time can mimic any psychiatric condition. A child with “Electronic Screen Syndrome” (coined by Dr Dunckley) is irritable, depressed or anxious; has trouble focusing on and completing tasks; and is defiant, impulsive and unmotivated.
  • A four-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 downtime with screen-free leisure activities so you don’t resort to your phone the minute you’re bored.
  • Sign up for ParentCircle’s #GadgetFreeHour campaign!

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 specialization 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, she was named one of America’s Top Psychiatrists by the Consumer Research Council and has 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

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Jayanth Nov 18 2020

Good one.

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