Screentime Is Making Kids Moody, Crazy, and Lazy

Pierre Van Zylparenting

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crying toddler in front of television

Do you have a child or teenager who always seems “on edge”, or who can erupt into a complete rage at any given moment? Or is your kid kind of depressed, apathetic, or has deflated into a constant mood of being dull and uninterested?

Your first instinct might be to jump into diagnosis-mode and try to pin down the cause of their behaviour to a mental health illness like depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, but before you go jumping to conclusions or running to your doctor, you may want to take a step back and evaluate the environmental factors that could be contributing to his or her changing moods.Specifically, you should pay attention to how much time your child is spending with electronics every day [1].

Screen Time May Be Damaging Your Child’s Health

Kids these days spend a lot of time in front of a screen. According to the American Heart Association, children aged eight to eighteen spend on average more than seven hours every day using some kind of electronic device, which is almost four times the recommended amount [2].

Limiting screen time can be a battle, and while it might be tempting to give in to your kids’ pleas and demands, keeping in mind the negative impact this overexposure can have on them will help you to remain steadfast. 

So exactly how does technology overuse affect your child?

It Disrupts Their Body Clock

Everyone’s bodies have what’s called a “circadian rhythm”. This is basically your body’s 24-hour clock that  determines your sleeping and eating patterns [3].

This internal clock depends on a number of factors to keep itself regulated, including the release of a hormone called melatonin. It is made in your pineal gland, which is inactive during the day. When the sun goes down and it becomes dark, the pineal gland activates and releases melatonin, signaling your body that it is time to sleep [4].

The light that is emitted from screens, however, mimics sunlight and delays the activation of your pineal gland, preventing melatonin from being released, sometimes by several hours. This can cause a cascade of unhealthy events, from hormone imbalance to brain inflammation [1].

Screen Time Desensitizes Your Brain

If your child is particularly fond of video games, you may want to listen up. Turns out, when you play video games, you brain releases so much dopamine (aka the “feel good” hormone), that it changes your brain in a similar way to a drug addiction [5,6].

The more these reward pathways get over-stimulated, the less sensitive they become, so your child needs to increase the amount of stimulation to get the same amount of pleasure, leading to an addiction [1].

Depression and Suicide Risk

A report published by the CDC found that fifteen percent of teens had considered hurting themselves within the last year [7]. There are many possible reasons for the dramatic increase in mental health illness among adolescents, but one that is less-often brought up is light-at-night [8].

There have been multiple studies conducted across the world that have associated depressive thoughts and suicidal feelings with cell phone use late at night. This goes back to the disturbance of your child’s circadian rhythms [8].

Sleep disturbance and nighttime awakenings are linked to suicidal behaviour and depression in young people, and since screen time impacts their sleep, this correlation is not surprising [8].

Screen Time Reduces Your Child’s Ability to Regulate Their Mood

Stress, whether it is acute or chronic, causes changes in your child’s brain chemistry and hormones that can make them irritable [1]. 

Studies have shown that computer games and constant screen time put your child into a stressed state, increasing their levels of the stress hormone, cortisol [9].

In addition, both hyperarousal and addiction caused by screen time and video games suppress the frontal lobe of the brain, where mood regulation takes place. This puts your child at greater risk for depression and decreases their ability to control emotional outbursts [1].

Screen Time Depletes Your Child’s Mental Reserves

Too much screen time leads to a very high amount of cognitive and visual input, which depletes your child’s mental energy and decreases their ability to process their own emotions and what is going on around them [1].

Anger is an easy way for your child to give a sudden boost to their mental reserves, so temper tantrums and meltdowns actually become a way for them to cope [1].

Screen Time Reduces Physical Activity

There are many studies that suggest that spending time outdoors increases your child’s attention span and decreases their levels of stress and aggression [10]. The more time your child spends in front of a screen, the less time they are spending outside reaping the positive mental health benefits of nature.

Additionally, too much time sitting in front of a screen will limit the amount of time your child spends doing other more vigorous activities, like playing a sport or a game like tag. This could lead to obesity and other health problems associated with inactivity [11].

How to Limit Your Child’s Screen Time

So maybe you’ve realized that your kids spend a little too much time on their phones and computers, but you’re not sure how to fix the problem. Cutting back on your children’s screen time can be a challenge at first, but once they get used to the new rules they will settle into a routine. Here are some tips for how you can decrease your family’s screen time:

  1. Set the example. You can’t expect your kids to listen to you telling them to get off their computers and phones if you’re glued to yours 24/7. Set yours down and lead by example, and your kids are more likely to follow.
  2. Put your foot down. As tough as it can be to make the unpopular decision, sometimes you just have to be firm. Sometimes explaining to your child why you are making that decision will help them to be more receptive.
  3. Give them limits. You don’t necessarily have to cut them off completely, but set clearly defined limits with your children for how much screen time they are allowed, and equally as importantly, when.
  4. Help them find other things to do. In the beginning your child may have a difficult time coming up with other activities, so offer them suggestions and better yet, offer to do an activity with them.
  5. Keep the T.V. in one room. Leave the T.V. out of the dining room and out of your kids’ bedrooms. Dinner time is a time for engaging with your children and developing important communication skills and manners, not for catching up on the latest show. Keeping T.V.s out of their bedrooms will also prevent them from having screen time right before bed and disrupting their sleep [12].

Implementing these changes and rules may be difficult at first, particularly if your child is used to unrestricted screen time, but in the end it will make them calmer, stronger, and happier.

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