The Impact of Screen Time on Kids Mental Health [the Science Revealed]

Blog Mind The Impact of Screen Time on Kids Mental Health [the Science Revealed]

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1.24.2024 0 comments

Screens are everywhere!

No matter what you do, you can’t avoid them. They’re in your pocket, in your living room, on the bus or airplane, even in your car.

Modern screen-bearing devices have made life significantly more convenient in a number of ways, but they’ve also been proven to have negative effects—not just on you, but on your kids most of all.

Below, we’ll take a look at some of the latest research into screen time and its effects on your kids’ health and wellbeing, both physical and mental.

By the time you reach the end of this post, you’ll have a greater understanding of just how deleterious screen time has the potential to be if left unchecked. Don’t worry: we’ve also added some simple tips and tricks to help you cut back on screen time in your kids’ lives.

How Screen Time Affects Your Kids’ Health

In March 2023, a team of researchers from both the Yale Department of Psychiatry and the Columbia School of Nursing worked together to conduct an analysis of more than 5,100 kids (ages 9 and 10) [1]. The study was the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, a massive, long-term study that analyzes child health and brain development in the country.

Through the research, it was discovered that kids who spent the greatest amount of time using screens (and digital technology overall) had a higher likelihood of developing internalizing problems within two years of the study.

Children who spent more time on their screens had brain development patterns similar to adults who consume significant amounts of alcohol. Which screen time didn’t contribute to higher rates of externalizing problems (defiance, relational aggression, physical and verbal aggression, etc.) that was common to alcohol-consuming adults, the internalizing problems were very common.

Internalizing problems include:

  • Social anxiety

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Somatic complaints

  • Obsession-compulsion

  • Post-traumatic symptoms

  • and more…

A study from 2018 [2] found that children and adolescents who spend upward of seven hours per day on screens and digital devices were twice as likely to develop depression and anxiety than those who didn’t.

Not only that, but even just spending one hour per day on screens led to a lower psychological wellbeing overall, including:

  • Less emotional stability

  • Higher distractibility

  • Inability to finish tasks

  • Less curiosity

  • Less self-control

  • More difficulty making new friends

  • Being more challenging to care for

The older the participants were (14 to 17-year olds, in this case), the greater the association between screen time and poorer mental and emotional health.

It’s not just your teenagers or older kids who are risk, either.

Research into the effects of screens on infants and toddlers have demonstrated some truly astonishing—and frankly concerning—results.

One study [3] examined the effects of screens on infants between newborns and 18 months old, analyzing how screen time impaired their health. The data proved that infants who were exposed to screens experienced decreased daytime sleep. This did help them to sleep more at night (the result of built-up “sleep homeostatic pressure”), but the fact that it interfered with their sleep rhythms and quality is certainly troublesome for parents.

Another study [4] looked at the effects of screen time on preschool-age children (around 3-5 years old). The week-long study involved three different conditions:

  • Five days of following a strict sleep schedule

  • One day in a dim-light environment

  • One day in a dim-light environment with exposure to bright light stimulus (simulating screen use) before bedtime

The bright light stimulus proved to suppress melatonin significantly, and the melatonin impairment continued long after the bright light stimulus was removed.

This makes clear that exposure to bright lights and screens in the evening can have a direct impact on your kids’ ability to fall asleep. The melatonin suppression resulting from screen time can lead to poor sleep hygiene, settling difficulties, and possibly even lower sleep quality overall.

Harvard Medical School published an article in 2019 talking about the effects that screen time has on the brain [5]. They explain the negative effects in a simple yet sobering way:

“The growing human brain is constantly building neural connections while pruning away less-used ones, and digital media use plays an active role in that process, Much of what happens on screen provides “impoverished” stimulation of the developing brain compared to reality. Children need a diverse menu of online and offline experiences, including the chance to let their minds wander. Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen.”

But that’s not all screen time does.

Screen time impairs sleep—not only by suppressing melatonin, but also encouraging staying up late at night and not getting to sleep on a proper schedule. This can lead to reduced brain development, poorer memory and recall, and impaired learning ability.

The way that social media and games works on our brains’ “variable reward system” can also be harmful. Think of the variable reward system as a slot machine: you simply pull the handle and hope you’re going to hit big, even if that means putting up with the frustration of not succeeding time and time again. It tricks the brain into banking on something that might happen rather than encouraging children and teenagers to work to improve their brains. And because a child’s and teenager’s brain isn’t fully developed, the self-control systems haven’t yet been put into place that stop them from becoming obsessed with these variable rewards.

How to Cut Back on Screen Time for Your Kids

As you’ve seen above, screen time can be very harmful for your kids no matter their age. It’s important for you, the parent, to establish safeguards, boundaries, and guidelines to keep screen time from being excessive in your home.

Here are a few things you can do:

  • Make meals a screen-free zone. Make it a rule that while you’re sitting at the table, everyone has their phone down and their screens put away. Set a time limit for how long dinner will last—15 to 30 minutes at least—to keep people away from their screens.

  • Put down screens when talking to each other. Make it a rule in your household that when people are talking, everyone in the conversation puts their screens down. This prevents distraction and increases engagement.

  • Cut out screen time two hours before bedtime. Screens should be put down at least two hours before bed in order to keep bright light stimulus from reducing melatonin levels and impairing sleep quality.

  • Spend more time on screen-free activities. Play games. Read books. Listen to music. Draw and color. Bake. Build something. Do anything that keeps you away from screens as a family. The best way to keep your kids away from screens is to set the example for them and disconnect from your screen, too.

  • Create screen-free zones. There should be certain areas in the house where there are no phones—such as at the dining room table or in the bedrooms. Establishing these zones helps to create spaces without the temptation of screens.

  • Keep screens in shared spaces. Make sure all the tablets, TVs, and computers are set up in the shared spaces in your home. Give everyone headphones so they can enjoy their entertainment, games, and media without disturbing or being disturbed by others, but make sure that everything happens in public so you can keep an eye on what everyone is doing and how the screens are being used.

Screens in and of themselves aren’t harmful—on the contrary, they can be an amazing source of learning, enrichment, and growth. However, if used excessively or incorrectly, they can damage your child’s brain and lead to long-term mental, cognitive, and physical health problems (as you saw above).

Curbing screen time is essential to help your kids be happier and healthier in mind and body both. The tips above can help you put guidelines into place that will help you keep screen time under control in your own home.








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