Growing up on a farm in rural Wyoming in the 1980s, Sandra Roberts (a pseudonym) didn’t indulge in much screen time; after all, the only screen her family had was an old television that got four fuzzy channels, if the wind wasn’t blowing.
But one weekend, she was allowed to watch the entire three-movie Indiana Jones series with friends. When her mother arrived to pick her up, she found Sandra crying hysterically, complaining of a pounding headache and severe nausea. They went to the ER, but multiple tests showed nothing. The doctor finally suggested that Sandra might be overstimulated from six hours of nonstop action-film viewing, so he suggested having her do it again the following weekend as an experiment. Sure enough, the symptoms returned, this time after only three hours.
It was fairly simple for Sandra to avoid screens after that; besides, she says, she was too busy going to school, hanging out with friends and helping on the farm. Now, though, her 8-year-old son, Oliver, is having the same issues.
“He’s extremely far-sighted,” she says, “and screens allow his eyes to fixate and not move. That’s not good for anyone, but especially for him. It creates a hypnosis effect. After watching too much TV, he’s in tears, just like I used to be.”
So, Roberts and her husband introduced screen-time rules, allowing Oliver only an hour per day with any type of screen after finishing his homework and chores. But monitoring screen time is more difficult now than when she was younger, she says, because multiple screens are everywhere. And, she adds, “it’s difficult to tell him ‘no screen time’ when he sees me working on the computer.”
Adults today own an average of four devices with screens. According to a 2016 Nielsen report, they spend 10 hours and 39 minutes per day staring at those screens, an increase of a full hour over the previous year. The National Institutes of Health estimates that children’s screen time averages five to seven hours per day, including about three hours watching TV. The statistics change quickly as new devices appear in stores, as technology advances and as more and more schools and workplaces rely on screens.
As with every hot-button issue, however, there are two sides to the digital-world debate.
The Cons: Damage to Body and Brain
Although thousands of studies focus on screen time, they are naturally limited in their ability to measure its long-term effects. After all, the Internet has been widespread since only 1995, and the now ubiquitous iPhone is a mere decade old.
But, as with every other topic, information abounds, ranging from verified scientific research to parental opinions. Excessive screen time is linked to sleeplessness, moodiness, eyestrain, headaches, anxiety, depression, poor focus, feelings of isolation, obesity, chronic stress, learning delays, behavioral problems and even violence.
Like Roberts, Sydnie Bryant has a young child who is sensitive to overstimulation. “Just a few minutes on the iPad can lead to 30 minutes of a tantrum,” she says. Making matters worse, the family just relocated from Pennsylvania to a Florida school district that administers computer-based testing in the classroom every day. “My daughter is smart, but she’s not computer-savvy, because they didn’t use computers in her previous school,” Bryant says. “So, she’s getting overstimulated and frustrated at the same time.”
“Every time a child picks up a screen device, not one but many changes occur in the brain,” says Victoria Dunckley, MD, a Los Angeles–based psychiatrist, noted screen-time expert and author of Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns (New World Library, 2015). “In terms of sensory, psychological and cognitive input, electronic screen media is unnaturally intense. It causes enormous amounts of information to be taken in and processed.”
This intensity, she says, drains mental reserves and fractures attention. Radiation from the device and from the wireless connection also disrupts brain waves. The changes can be significant enough to impact frontal lobe functioning during the crucial years when the brain is still developing. “When screen time affects how the child feels, thinks, behaves or socializes on a day-to-day basis, I call it Electronic Screen Syndrome, or ESS,” Dunckley says.
Because ESS influences the brain and the body, it can mimic, or even exacerbate, other psychiatric disorders, such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression and learning disorders. Dunckley advises her clients to first try an “electronic fast” before accepting such diagnoses, which often require medications.
Adult brains, though more fully developed, aren’t immune to screen-time effects. Roberts has learned to limit her own TV time, but she struggles with computer time needed to do her job and with the fact that she likes to look at her phone during her only “me time”—right before bed. “If I’m on the phone too close to bedtime, my sleep is disrupted,” she says. “I’ll wake up around 1 a.m., no matter what, and my sleep is not as deep.”
Compounding the problem for both adults and children, Dunckley says, is that most people erroneously believe that interactive screen time (using educational games or apps, for instance) is better than passive screen time (watching TV), when in fact the opposite has proven true. “The very interactiveness of interactive screen time can overly stimulate the nervous system, especially a developing one,” she says.
The Pros: Education and Connection
The reality is, screens aren’t going away—ever. When at work, about 64 percent of adults use a computer to access the Internet, use software programs and check email; almost
60 percent of workers also use a mobile phone. Children spend time on computers or tablets at school and then come home and want to unwind by watching TV or playing video games.
But screens aren’t necessarily bad, says Eric Rasmussen, PhD, a researcher at Texas Tech University, blogger at ChildrenAndMediaMan.com and author of Media Maze: Unconventional Wisdom for Guiding Children Through Media (Plain Sight, 2017). He believes that helping kids “navigate the increasingly complex media environment” is the most difficult job adults have today.
A number of his blog posts offer tips for limiting or reducing screen time, but he’s realistic about the issue.
“Some media is good, and some is bad,” he says. “We all need help making good media choices, both in terms of content and time spent with media.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics, which suggests screen-time limits for each age group and advises parents to prioritize unplugged time over screen time, also acknowledges that, when used wisely, digital media can help children “create, connect and learn.” A study from the Mount Sinai Health System in New York reported that video gamers make better surgeons. Similar studies tout the benefits for all ages, like connecting with friends and family across the miles, improving motor skills and coordination, learning marketable technology skills and easily tracking important health-related stats like calories eaten or steps taken in a day.
Digital devices also provide motivation and opportunities to communicate better with your teen. When Delaney Ruston, MD, noticed her teenager was spending too much time online, she didn’t wrestle for control. Instead, she created a movie. Ruston’s documentary Screenagers: Growing up in the Digital Age offers parents and teens simple strategies on how to decrease screen time and its dangerous consequences. Subscribe to Ruston’s Tech Talk Tuesdays and receive tips on how to start conversations about social media use and video gaming (go to screenagersmovie.com). “It’s important to get our teens to talk about it, not fight over it,” she says. “To be effective, we need to involve our kids in making rules.”
It’s essential to find a healthy screen-time balance that works for a child’s or adult’s needs—a digital sweet spot. Bryant, who limits her children’s screen time, says that video-chatting with Grandma never counts against the set limits. “Connecting that way is much too important to my daughters and to my mother.”
Roberts works at setting screen-time limits for herself as well as for her children; she knows she’ll feel much more rested if she can refrain from being on her phone at bedtime, and she certainly won’t be watching six nonstop hours of action films again anytime soon. But she also understands that screens are an inevitable part of life, so she enjoys the benefits when she can—like reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, shopping online when she can’t get to a store and searching the Internet for new recipes.
Rasmussen understands this, too. “If we are going to be immersed in a technological world,” he says, “we should be getting the most out of the good technology that exists.”