Mean and Moody: Is Screen-Time Harming Children?

These days, its quite common to see a child or teen who is chronically irritable and prone to angry outbursts or, alternatively, one who is apathetic and depressed. Such chronically irritable kids are often in a state of abnormally high arousal, making them both agitated and exhausted. The likely culprit? Everyday use of electronics.

Children who are exposed to several hours of screen-time daily are much more likely to be over-stimulated, exhausted, lack focus and have poor memory retention. The overuse of technology by children is implicated as the cause of rising rates of childhood depression, anxiety, attachment disorder, attention deficit, bipolar disorder, autism, psychosis and problematic child behavior.

Often, though, parents will pin the culprit as a mental disorder, but fail to rule out the more likely obvious cause of the above symptoms: screen-time with handheld devices, computers and TV.

So, let’s first take a look at technology and it’s impact on child development. Then, we will offer some solutions to bring kids back from the brink.

Technology and Tots – A Developmental Catastrophe?

In general, pediatricians across the board think it’s a bad idea for children to watch TV or video programs before age two. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a clear stance when it comes to screen time: eliminate any screen time for children younger than 2 years old – completely. This includes TVs, videos, computers, tablets and mobile phones. Here’s why:

  • Language learning delays: Children are programmed to learn from interacting with other people. When toddlers are learning to speak, they are gaining more than just verbal cues from their parents. They are learning facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Normally, a parent speaks roughly 940 words per hour in the presence of a toddler. When the TV or other media is on, that number falls to 770. Fewer words exchanged and lack of parental presence to assimilate body cues means less language learning for the toddler.
  • Attention-deficit: Studies have shown that toddlers having more screen time are much more likely to have problems paying attention by age seven. Technology sets up an environment creating many distractions and an inability to focus on any one thing.
  • Early brain development: Children’s brains grow profoundly during the first three years of life. The brain triples in mass in just the first 12 months of life. Stimuli from the child’s environment during the period has a marked influence on brain development. Watching a ball roll around on a screen is very different from an actual ball rolling on the floor, which can be crawled after and held. Images on a screen just disappear and are replaced by other images, ones that cannot be held or touched. Research shows that it takes two years for a baby’s brain to develop to the point where symbols on a screen represent the real-life equivalents in the real world.
  • Health Consequences: The AAP has found that in children under 3 years of age, television viewing has been associated with irregular sleep schedules. Placing a TV in a child’s room and allowing unregulated viewing of television increases the loss of sleep and the chance for obesity.

Screen-time Can Be Mean-Time

Electronic media can lead to moodiness, meanness and aggression. Many parents believe that interactive screen-time such as Internet use, texting, emailing or gaming isn’t harmful compared with passive screen-time like watching television. However, quite the opposite is true. Interactive screen-time is more likely to cause sleep, mood and cognitive issues since it causes hyper-arousal and compulsive use.

Researchers have found that gaming keeps a child in a constant state of arousal by engaging the body’s fight or flight mechanism. Chronically high arousal levels impact memory and the ability of the child to relate to others, causing academic and social issues. Abnormally high arousal suppresses the brain’s frontal lobe, leading to irritability, which can make children moody and mean.

Health Issues Linked to Screen-time

Long-term screen-time of any form, regardless whether comprised of passive TV watching or active Internet searching and gaming, can lead to physical and mental health issues. Let’s take a look:

  • Obesity: The more TV children watch, the more likely they are to gain excess weight. Several studies that followed children over long periods of time have consistently found this to be true. Plus, children who have TV sets in their bedrooms are also more likely to gain excess weight than those who don’t. There is also evidence that early TV habits may have long-lasting effects. Two studies that followed children from birth found that TV viewing in childhood predicts the risk for obesity into adulthood and mid-life. And television alone is not just a culprit – the sedentary nature of video games, along with ads for high-calorie foods, can lead to unhealthy weights among the nation’s youth.
  • Addiction: Many children are addicted to electronics, and for good reason. Gaming releases so much dopamine (feel-good chemical) into their brain’s reward system that on a brain scan it appears the sames as cocaine use. When these pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, requiring greater stimulation to experience pleasure. Dopamine is vital for motivation and focus, so even small changes to dopamine sensitivity can be detrimental to how a child feels and functions.
  • Sleep Deprivation: The light from electronic devices can cause the body to suppress the release of melatonin, a chemical which signals sleep when it is dark. The stimulation from a screen can delay the release of melatonin by several hours, causing the body’s clock to desynchronize. Plus, the abnormally high arousal from electronic devices can limit deep sleep, which is needed for the body to heal.

Chronically tired and irritable children and youth perform worse in school and are more likely to develop ADHD and depression, studies have shown.

What is a Parent to Do? Solutions for Screen-time Overload

Technology has an intense pull and can be highly addictive, but there are ways to counteract what the online world has to offer:

  • Remove TVs and Connected Devices: The American Academy of Pediatrics, along with numerous therapists, recommend removing TVs and computers from bedrooms. Having electronic devices in bedrooms leads to unregulated, excessive use of screen-time and has been linked to obesity, sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression.
  • Set reasonable limits: The AAP recommends that screen-time at any age beyond 4 years old be limited to two hours per day. Research has shown that children using electronic devices beyond two hours have cognitive impairment and do not perform as well on tests. Other studies have shown that 7-year olds exposed to more than two hours of media daily have a higher tendency to develop long-term attention deficit issues. For children ages 2-4, no more than 30 minutes to one hour. No media usage is recommended for children under 2 years of age.
  • Say “No” to yourself: Parents are often at fault, directly or indirectly, when children and teens become hooked on screen-time. Researchers have found that when parents are absorbed in their own devices, children are either more likely to act out or follow their parent’s example. As a parent, save checking email or social media until after children have been put to bed for the night.
  • Intervene with an electronics fast: for children and teens who are out of control with screen-time usage, methodically eliminate all electronics use for several weeks, allowing the brain and the nervous system to reset. Such intervention can produce deeper sleep, better focus, improvement in the ability to process stress, and a more pleasant and even mood.

Keep in mind that moodiness and irritability from screen-time overload can be fixed. The sooner you act, the better.


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