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two toddlers sitting on sofa while using tablet computerAs we know, technology plays a huge role in our everyday lives and most parents struggle with how to find a healthy balance for their kids and themselves. Screen time is defined as all time spent on any kind of screen, including TVs, phones, tablets, computers …etc. It is evident that kids love screen time and tend to ask for it often. However, we also hear rumours that screen time may not be good for our kids.

Let’s talk about this!

It is suggested by healthcare professionals that… 

    1. If your child is less than 2 years old, no screen time is recommended. 

    2. If your child is between the ages of 2 to 4, less than 1 hour per day is recommended.

    3. If your child is between the ages of 5 to 17, no more than 2 hours per day is recommended. 

Studies have found that there is a dose relationship between screen time exposure and the more difficulties youth have in regards to attention and hyperactivity. In other words, increased screen time has a strong relationship to reduced attention and increased hyperactivity.

Some parents may say, “but my child looks as if they are paying great attention when they are using the screen. They are glued to the screen for hours! How can what you are saying be right?” 

This behaviour does not represent attention. What is happening is that the child is being stimulated by the electronic device. In fact, during this stimulation, depending on the nature of the activity, it can actually cause reduced attention. When the screen is constantly switching images at a fast pace, such as during an action video game, the brain can go into a ‘scanning and shifting mode’, increasing excitement, but reducing attention. If a child uses these types of games regularly, it can lead to them searching for this excitement/arousal more often, which leads to not wanting to pay attention when they need to, such as when they are in class.  

We also hear rumours about the negative effects of ‘blue light’ that electronic devices emit when they are in use. Studies confirm these rumours and show that our internal circadian clock is extremely sensitive to blue light. When we are exposed to short wavelengths (a.k.a. blue light), it suppresses melatonin secretion and continues to do so even after we have stopped looking at our screens. This can prevent us and our children from receiving a restful night’s sleep. A lack of sleep can conversely create problems in regards to executive function, which includes attention, planning, decision making, self-control and problem solving because of an increased level of fatigue.  

Many parents notice that their child is more prone to emotional tantrums, irritability, or outbursts immediately after their electronics are removed. This could be a symptom of some of the above effects on their executive function as well as some research showing increased screen time is linked to reduced emotional regulation. When our brain’s rely more on scanning, instincts, and emotional reactions, this means that subcortical (aka deeper) parts of their brain may be more dominant. What is interesting about the outer vs deeper parts of our brain is that the outer cortex is involved with higher order information processing, such as decision making, inhibiting our impulses and regulating our emotions. When the outer parts of our brain reduce their dominance and the inner parts become more dominant, this can lead our brain to act more on instincts and emotions. Thus, if our child spends too much time on electronics, we can sometimes see this increased emotionality in their behaviour because it’s their ‘inner’ brain that is more dominant.  

Not all screen time is negative, if consumed in the recommended doses. Research shows that if the content is educational, co-viewed and discussed with their caregivers it can have a positive impact on our children and encourage learning. However, face to face interactive play is always the best for your child’s brain.

I, myself, have been looking at brain functioning in EEGs for over 10 years and I have seen reduced function in youth’s frontal lobes and excess theta activity when they are on electronics too much. My recommendations on screen-time align with other health-care professionals, in that less than 2 hours per day is recommended. I would also like to add that it is better to break up this time into smaller chunks throughout the day instead of all at once. Surprisingly, I have also seen electrical harmonics in EEGs when individuals were wearing smart watches/FitBits/etc. I, on occasion, have seen the electrical energy travelling up into people’s brains! Although I am currently not sure if this will have any negative impact, it’s best to be mindful of the decisions we make about electronics. 

If you have any concerns about your child’s or your brain, you could always have QEEG brain mapping done at the TNPC. This can help answer some questions about your child’s brain development and arousal patterns. 

Dr. Michelle Presniak, Ph.D., C.Psych., BCN

References:

  • https://www.publichealthontario.ca/-/media/documents/P/2015/parental-support-screen-time.pdf?la=en
  • Screen-time is associated with inattention problems in preschoolers: Results from the CHILD birth cohort study. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0213995
  • Adverse physiological and psychological effects of screen time on children and adolescents: Literature review and case study. https://www-sciencedirect-com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/science/article/pii/S001393511830015X?via%3Dihub#bib62
  • Non-Visual Effects of Light on Melatonin, Alertness and Cognitive Performance: Can Blue-Enriched Light Keep Us Alert? https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0016429#pone.0016429-Lockley1
  • Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. https://academic.oup.com/pch/article/22/8/461/4392451