In the USA alone, an average child or teenager spends anywhere between 4-9 hours each day on their devices- significantly more than the recommended maximum of two hours.
Whilst these digital tools can be educational, entertaining, and useful, this amount of screen time is changing the development of our brains, can be highly addictive, and is negatively impacting our mental health, especially for young people.
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at how screen time can affect brain development, mental health and cognitive performance of children and teenagers, then sharing some advice on how you can continue to enjoy technology whilst protecting your child’s health.
How screen time affects your child's brain function?
According to numerous studies, your child’s brain function and chemistry can be significantly affected when exposed to too much screen time.
More than two hours per day can delay development and cause children to score lower on language and literacy tests and perform lower when it comes to critical thinking and reasoning, according to a 2018 study from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Reduced cognitive function and delayed brain development
When developing brains are exposed to screens such as phones, tablets, televisions and computers for long periods, the chemistry, wiring and overall function of their brains can be affected.
This can have numerous effects on the young brain, primarily affecting part of the brain called the frontal lobe.
Located just behind the forehead, this part of the brain is responsible for many of the functions that make us human such as memory, emotions, impulse control, social interaction and critical thinking skills.
When exposed to screens, the grey matter in the brain may not develop normally and it’s more difficult to develop empathy, recognise emotions and enjoy optimal brain function.
Additionally, too much screen time affects the white matter of the brain. This is the deeper part that helps connect the left and right hemispheres, regulates brain function and is involved with language, literacy and cognitive skills.
The brains of younger children between 3 and 5 are especially vulnerable, as the study ‘Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children’ (2019) demonstrated.
By scanning the brains of children who were exposed to more than one hour of screen time per day without parental involvement, they showed that there were indeed lower levels of development in the parts of the brain involved with executive function.
When children are exposed to screens, they’re also encountering much more stimuli than they would in the real world.
The sensory overload from colours, images and scenarios can trigger a ‘fight or flight’ reaction in their brains, causing a cascade of stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine to be released and triggering a range of physical, emotional and psychological reactions.
Whilst this sensory exposure can be useful in some contexts and can help reduce stressful reactions in the real world, the effect can be entirely different when the child has too much screen time.
Overwhelmed by this constant ‘fight or flight’ reaction, brain chemistry can change significantly and they are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, sleep problems and other stress-related disorders, as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
For the already vulnerable teenage brain, the risks can be even greater, especially if they spend long periods using social media or gaming.
Gaming, specifically, releases significant amounts of dopamine- the brain's reward chemical. It’s the same chemical that is released when we experience pleasurable experiences like eating delicious foods, having sexual intercourse or even using drugs.
This reward circuit encourages us to do more of the same and was originally designed to help the survival of our species.
However, it can also lead to addictions, cause the brain to become less sensitive and ultimately seek newer, more novel experiences to enjoy the same ‘kick.’
This can increase risky behaviour (especially in teens), lead to aggression and poor impulse control and extreme competitiveness, especially in boys. If the child is already suffering from ADHD or behaviour disorder, the problem can become even worse.
Over time, the child can find it harder to focus or be motivated to do tasks such as schoolwork, chores or certain activities because their brains have become desensitised to real-life rewards and are more likely to be addicted to the game experience itself.
All of these changes to the brain make it much harder for a child to achieve their academic potential, foster optimal social skills and develop their full cognitive potential.
Too much screen time can also disrupt a child’s sleep, further affecting their cognitive function and their mood. This is because the high level of stimulation and blue light emitted from electronic devices can suppress the release of the hormone melatonin that helps regulate our sleep-wake cycles.
As bedtime draws closer, the pineal gland releases this hormone to help us fall asleep and stay asleep. If children use their screens closer to bedtime, they can experience problems falling asleep, wake frequently throughout the night and suffer from disrupted sleep patterns.
Every parent knows that good quality sleep is essential for the development of young brains, the acquiring and learning of new information, mood balance and optimal mental and physical health. If your child is unable to sleep properly, they may struggle at school, suffer from mental health or behavioural problems and get sick more often.
How screen time affects your child's mental health
Clearly, the cognitive changes experienced when a child is exposed to excessive screen time can pose problems to their overall development.
As mentioned above, the effect that it can have on their brain chemicals, brain wiring and sleep patterns can make it significantly harder for children and teenagers to fulfil their potential.
But there’s perhaps another risk that many parents are unaware of- the impact that too much screen time can have on mental health.
We all spend, on average, many more hours on our screens than we used to thanks to constant technological innovations and the increasing digitalisation of our society.
The COVID pandemic and subsequent lockdowns further increased this, as screens and other digital devices became essential tools for learning, social interaction and enjoying hobbies that we were temporarily unable to participate in face to face.
Although these tools can make life easier for us all, they can have an impact on our overall mental health, especially if we spend time on social media. For children and teenagers who often spend a great deal of time on social media sites like Instagram and Snapchat, the problem can be even worse.
Teenagers are already more vulnerable to mental health problems thanks to the cocktail of hormones that are surging through their bodies and their still-developing frontal lobes.
When teamed with cyberbullying and seemingly consequence-free peer group interactions, they are more at risk of developing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation. They’re also more likely to develop a poor self-image, indulge in risky behaviours and potentially become addicted to their screen time.
Reduced face-to-face, real-life interactions can also affect the release and maintenance of certain feel-good hormones such as serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins that can trigger or worsen any mental health problems.
As studies of preschool children have shown, this can affect the child’s ability to make normal eye contact, interact appropriately in social situations and create normal social relationships.
Of course, when children and teenagers spend long periods of time online, they lack the physical activity that they need for optimal physical and mental health. This can also cause a cascade of other health problems, potentially leading to obesity and further affecting those feel-good hormones released in the brain.
The addictive qualities of screen time has a similar effect on the brain as alcohol, drugs and gambling which, as mentioned above, can result in behavioural changes, poor mental health and other cognitive problems.
How can we protect our children's brains?
Given the above, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we should eliminate all screen time from our children’s lives if we want them to enjoy optimal mental and physical health and cognitive function.
However, screens and digital media can offer certain advantages to adults and children of all ages. When used in moderation with the correct software, programs and platforms, it can improve socialisation, enhance cognitive skills, encourage literacy and help develop those fine motor skills.
To do so, ensure that you stick to your government’s recommendations regarding screen time, supervise your children whenever possible and choose the most educational resources possible.
Also consider using Forbrain daily to help promote optimal brain development, develop attention skills, reduce distractions and aid clearer thinking, memory and information retention.
By using the headset for just 20 minutes per day with their usual daily activities such as reading or doing homework, they will activate the auditory nerve using their voice, promoting better cognition and learning, building self-confidence and helping them to achieve their full potential in all areas of their life.
There’s no denying that screen time and digital technology have become essential tools for life in the 21st century. However, too much screen time can have a highly detrimental effect on a child’s brain development, cognitive skills, physical and mental health and ability to fulfil their potential.
By becoming more aware of the amount of time your child or teenager spends online, supervising their use as much as possible and using cutting-edge tools such as Forbrain to promote cognitive skills, you can reduce the negative impacts of screen time and help your child to succeed.