How Do Screens Effect My Child’s Brain?


November 14, 2023 | jamesclinic

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Article At A Glance:

  • Screen devices, video  games, social media, and other apps are addictive by design.
  • Recreational screen devices activate dopamine pathways in the brain, a common feature in both behavioral and chemical addictions.
  • Recreational screen devices activate a stress response that is both addictive and destructive to neurological, psychological, and behavioral functioning. 
  • The blue light emitted from screen devices disrupts the natural cycle of melatonin production, disrupting sleep, and leaving children “wired and tired.”
  • Every family should have a screen use plan in place and families should seek professional assistance when their child is showing adverse signs of screen overuse.

Screen devices, video games, social media and other recreational screen activities are addictive because they are designed to be.  The tech industry invests hundreds of millions of dollars in research studies, led by experts in behavioral addiction, to attract us to the device, pick it up more often, and set it down less frequently.  And, there are two primary ways this is done.  One is by activating neural networks, primarily the pleasure pathways, that that get and keep us hooked on a physiological level.  The other, is by manipulating deep psychological needs.

The Reward Pathways

Screen devices themselves, regardless of the content, have been found to activate dopamine pathways in the brain.  These are the pleasure pathways activated in both behavioral and chemical addictions, and they are activated when anticipating a reward.  In other words, dopamine does not provide a lasting sense of satisfaction after a goal is achieved.  Dopamine is activated when we are anticipating a reward and once the reward is achieved we are left wanting another “hit.” Every text message, every tweet, and every virtual gun fire is accompanied by a squirt of dopamine that keeps us coming back for more.  And, we build up a tolerance that leads to us checking our phone more frequently (even when there is no alert), spending more time on social media, and playing increasingly intense video games. 

The Fight or Flight Network

The unnatural colors and rapid movement common of recreational screen devices overwhelm our sensory systems creating a mild stress response.  This activation of one’s autonomic nervous system (i.e., the bodies stress response system) can be measured through measures of heart rate, skin temperature, skin conductance, and EEG (i.e., brainwave activity).  Accompanying this response is a release of two stress hormones, adrenaline (i.e., short term stress response) and cortisone (i.e., long term, chronic, stress response). 

The release of adrenalin has an addictive quality though chronic stress, in other words even mildly elevated level of stress over time, will increase cortisone levels in the body and result in long term physical, psychological, and behavioral consequences.  Over time, the nervous system has increasing difficulty returning to a regulated state and manifests in a wide range of problems associated with excessive recreational screen time, including the following:

Irritability, depression, rapid mood changes, excessive tantrums, low frustration tolerance, poor self-regulation, disorganized behavior, oppositional defiance, social immaturity, poor eye contact, insomnia or nonrestorative sleep, attention problems, and learning difficulties

The Sleep Cycle

Screen devises are unnaturally stimulating and the blue light emitted from these devices disrupts our natural sleep cycle.  Our circadian rhythm, which is dictated by the rise and fall in levels of serotonin and melatonin, mirror the rise and fall of the sun. 

Over the last 100 years, however, an extraordinarily short period of time in the history of human kind (i.e., 40,000 years), we have been able to harness the power of electricity to circumvent these natural cycles by illuminating our environment after dark.  And, the blue light immitted from incandescent lighting and screen devices actually tricks our brains, via the pineal gland, into thinking it is day time, reducing the production of melatonin. 

 Consequently, when we are on screen devices at night it makes it harder for us to fall asleep and reach deep levels of sleep.  And, this leaves our children wired and tired which, as every parent knows, is a dangerous combination.  In this state our children are completely dysregulated.  They cannot focus, learn, or control their emotions or behaviors.

Conclusion

Recreational screen devices can reek havoc on developing nervous systems (i.e., our children’s brains).  Fortunately, we can take control of our children’s use of screen devices and help to reset their brains to a state of focus, balance, and flexibility. This does not mean we eliminate all screen devices.  The world is changing rapidly and we can not turn back the clock.  We can, however, teach our children the difference between digital candy and digital vegetables and enforce healthy technology use habits. 

 Over the past 25 years we have seen an explosion in childhood obesity and even Type 2 Diabetes, something unheard of in previous generations.  And, we have responded by raising our knowledge about food, making more mindful decisions about the foods we serve our children, and teaching them about healthy eating habits.  We are now observing the significant adverse physical and mental health impact of excessive recreational screen use, even on a neurological level, and must respond accordingly to save our children from the significant short and long term effects. 

 Technology is not going anywhere.  In fact, the speed at which technology is advancing is itself advancing.  And yet, we must do something to take back control of, and bring greater balance to, our lives in order to save our children and their future. 

 I’m hoping you can partner with me in this effort and the place is start is by developing a tech use plan for your household.  If, however, your child is already experiencing significant dysregulation associated with recreational screen use, you may need to reach out to a professional for assistance. 

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