Childhood's Most Deadly Drug

March 16, 2018

Many of you have heard me talk about the detrimental effects of screen time in children. I feel so passionately about this that my wife and I got rid of our family TV (when I say 'got rid of it', I mean I put it in the garage so I can still get it out on evenings when I want to watch the footy, lol). Screen time can be so intoxicating for children that it can feel very easy to put the TV on when the kids get home while you try to get through your afternoon routine. 


 This image is from Lancaster Online - who have a fantastic article on this issue: Click Here to read it.


Now when I refer to screen time, I'm talking about exposure to the screens of TVs, computers, smart phones, iPads (or other tablets), projector screens and every other variation of these. The American College of Paediatrics have recommended avoiding screen time completely for children under the age of 2 years, however in 2016 gave the caveat that parents who want to introduce digital media should be very selective about programming, should introduce only a very small amount after 18 months of age, and should watch TV with their child and talk about what they are seeing. The recommendation also states that children from 2-5 years should be limited to 1 hour of screen time per day, this should be high quality programming only and parents should co-watch and talk about how to apply the things they are seeing in daily life (American College of Paediatrics).


A number of scientific studies have looked into the effects of increased screen time, many reporting associations with a number of developmental disorders, most notably Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). An article that was published in 2004 revealed that young children who watch TV are more likely to develop ADHD, that children between 1 and 3 who watched just one hour per day of TV had an increased risk of 10% by the time they turned 7 years old, and that minimising screen time clearly lowered the likely hood that a child would develop ADHD (Commentary from this study by Christakis et al, 2004 - available here). 


I just wanted to share what I felt are the two biggest challenges associated with increased exposure to screens. Before I do I just want to say, I'm not addressing what the children are watching in this post (ill save that for another post), just their exposure to a screen. 


Impact on Sleep Quality

Researchers from Stony Brook University in NY (Hale & Guan, 2016) conducted a systematic review of all the research that had been published on the effects of screen time on sleep, they found:

  • 78% of the studies found an adverse relationship between television use and total time sleeping. 

  • Sleep in males seems to be more affected by screen time than females.

  • Screen time use has a clear relationship with daytime tiredness.

  • 86% of studies found a relationship between video games and sleep patterns, including effects on total time sleeping and delayed sleep onset. 

  • Interactive screen time appears to be more detrimental to sleep than passive screen watching (like TV).  

Some research institutions, including Harvard University have indicated that the exposure to the blue light of the colour spectrum emitted by screens and electronic devices may be the culprit, as other research suggests this exposure to blue light can interrupt the circadian rhythm - your body's natural sleep-wake cycle, in all humans (not just children). Poorer sleep quality or reduced sleep leads to tired kids, and well we all know what thats like...


Impact on Executive Functioning

A huge number of studies have been completed on the effect of screen time on Executive Functioning in children (Executive Functioning refers to the functions of the frontal lobe, including Attention, Problem Solving, Impulse Control, Emotional Control, etc). The one I find most frightening is the actual grey matter atrophy (shrinkage or loss of nural tissue; grey matter is where the brain's main processing occurs) in children with screen-based gaming addictions. Researchers have also found that increased screen time exposure in internet and gaming addictions seems to lead to poorer cognitive functioning, reduced impulse control, changes to their perception regarding natural consequences, and abnormal brain activity associated with poor task performance, meaning they were more affected by perceved failures. Dopamine levels also appear reduced (dopamine is an essential neurotransmitter in the brain that deals with communication between neurones). They also found that gaming 'cravings' were neurologically similar to actual drug cravings... thats scary (check out this article by Psychology Today; Grey Matters...).


We could go on, as there is loads published on this issue. What we haven't discussed is what kids could be doing instead of watching TV, thats for another post. What I will tell you is that exercise (specifically 20 - 40 minutes of running) is the #1 non medicinal strategy for IMPROVING cognitive and executive functioning processes in children. The goal of this article is to have you consider the effect of screen time on your family, particularly your children. Get rid of your TV, or regulate its use. Your children might not thank you for it, but their brain will, and so will their future. 


Ill be talking more about executive functioning and attention in my upcoming two-part professional development series for Primary and Early Learning teachers in South East Queensland. The series is titled Beyond Behaviour: Fostering Success in Students with ASD - Check out the event here.

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