Undeniably, kids have been spending more screen time recently as a result of the Covid pandemic. Most children now spend even more time on digital media, for both educational and recreational purposes. This has raised concern among parents and medical teams. How does it impact younger children? But what is the evidence for this concern? Is there science to justify our cautious approach to children’s screen time? We know that the first two years of life are most important for brain growth. So, if our little kids spend more time watching cartoons and gaming, rather than being exposed to their mother tongue language, eye contact stimulation, physical exploration and fine motor activities, then we are most likely destroying our kids development.
How screen time affects kids mentally
In 2004, an American paediatrician found that for every hour of TV watched per day at the age of three, there was a 10% greater risk of concentration difficulties at age seven. Also what kids watched affected their risk: truly educational content (National Geographic documentaries) was not associated with any increased risk, while fast paced, bright, loud content (Cartoon Network) was associated with poorer concentration in first and second graders. Early and excessive fast-paced screen content somehow conditions the developing brain to expect high levels of stimulation, the likes of which cannot be attained in the average classroom.
Apart from the concentration issues discussed above, there is evidence that other areas of cognitive development may be affected by early and excessive screen time:
- early language development,
- working memory and
- reading comprehension. Interestingly, research suggests that reading a text from a conventional book is associated with better comprehension and recall of the material than reading the exact same text off a screen. In Australia, where education is digital, reading and mathematics scores have not improved; in fact they seem to have declined.
Exposure to LED screens is known to impair the functioning of melatonin, the brain chemical which prepares us for sleep after dark. Because kids are most likely to have screen time at night, kids find it difficult to sleep. Little to no sleep then aggravates many aspects of daily functioning, including cognitive performance and mental health.
Addiction: Gaming disorder
Parents often complain that their child is addicted to electronic gaming or social media. In fact there is now good evidence attesting to the clinical addictiveness of digital media use, especially gaming, which stimulates the ‘pleasure centre’ of the brain (the nucleus accumbens), the same area implicated in pathological gambling and other addictive behaviours. There is now an official psychiatric condition – Gaming Disorder – which reflects the seriousness of this form of screen overuse. It should therefore not be surprising that there are several other documented adverse mental health consequences of internet gaming and similar screen activities, including extreme irritability, and aggravation of depression and anxiety.
How screen time affects kids physically
Lastly, there are very real physical health risks associated with excessive screen time. There is research linking obesity with screen overuse. This is thought to be due to a combination of factors, including the commensurate lack of exercise, the tendency to snack on unhealthy foods when online, and dysregulation of the appetite-regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin.
Find the balance and protect your kids
Some have argued that we as a society have to accept the “new normal,” that the world and the human brain have evolved and increased digital media consumption is an inevitable and necessary aspect of modern life.
Nonetheless it is still our responsibility as a society and as parents to find a reasonable balance, and to protect especially very young children, whose brains are more vulnerable and whose immaturity precludes them from choosing wisely, against the very real dangers of early and excessive screen time.