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The impact of too much screen time on children - Jo Stockdale


Have you ever tried to end your kid’s screen time and been met with defiance, anger, outright refusal to co-operate or just been completely ignored? Although screened devices can be a godsend for parents; when eating out, travelling or just busy at home; many of us have first-hand experience of the less attractive; and often out-of-character; behaviours that arise when it’s time to put them away.


Kids are certainly spending a lot less time playing outside than a generation ago, so there’s an inevitable impact on their physical health. However, the implications don’t stop there; kids are missing out on the vital life & communication skills that develop through social interaction and imaginative play. Not only are these skills essential for navigating the journey into adulthood, but employees are increasingly reporting that young people’s lack of social skills is obstructing their progression in the workplace.


Being glued to a screen just doesn’t afford kids the opportunity to develop such skills, and so it’s no surprise that there’s been ongoing debate about the effects screens have on kids….Are the short- term benefits worth the long-term impacts may have?


This has been a growing topic of interest to researchers in recent years, and a number of bodies such as the AAP now recommend that young kids spend no more than 1-2 hours a day in front of screens. Despite this, research suggests that the average UK child shockingly spends between 6-8 hours per day in front of a screen!


A particular question that such research has been seeking answers to is how screened-devices impact children’s brains, and the conclusions being drawn are worrying; experts are now claiming that the addiction properties of smartphones and tablets are equivalent to our children taking a gram of cocaine or consuming a bottle of wine.


Despite these troubling claims, there still isn’t a great deal of readily-accessible information created for parents about our kid’s brain development, but understanding just a little on this very important subject (after all, every one of our kids beliefs, actions & decisions start there!) we can start to make sense of why our kids sometimes behave in the ways that they do; either while using devices, or in response to our requests to put them away. Screens stimulate a deep, primitive and impulsive part of the brain called the ‘limbic system’ which is where addiction is processed. The limbic system works very quickly, while barely using any conscious thought… It’s fair to say this part of brain ‘feels’ rather than thinks. AKA the ‘survival brain’, the limbic system is also home to our ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response, which kicks in when it senses a threat. Of course, screens do not really pose a real threat to our kids’ lives, but the because this part of the brain reacts without thinking, the fight/flight/freeze response is often inaccurate and irrational.


What’s more, when stimulated, the ‘survival brain’ produces adrenaline; an acidic hormone which is biologically designed to supply the muscles with extra strength and speed to fight and flee. However, with our kids immersed, yet immobile, on their devices, there’s nowhere for that adrenaline to go. This helps to explain why; when it’s time to switch off devices; we can be-often very suddenly-confronted with disproportionate anger, aggression or ‘shut-down’. This is just a sign that the FFF response has kicked in, and hijacked the rational, thinking part of the brain.


Despite all of this, it’s not practical for many of us to ditch the devices altogether, but thankfully there are a few ways we can find some middle-ground. Here are my 5 top tips…


1) Kids learn a lot of their behaviours from us, so what are we teaching them if we’re permanently glued to our phones? (Apps are designed to be addictive for us as well!)  Lead by example; Commit to specific times with your kids when you either switch off or leave your phone in another room. Definitely ensure that time to practice social skills i.e. at the dinner table; are protected by device-free zones.


2) Using your phone to entertain the kids while out and about is a useful short-term fix but can lead to kids being distracted, irritable and uncooperative. Where practical, activities like colouring, drawing, and puzzles are much healthier for body & mind than a phone or tablet. The forward-planning and space in your bag is worth it because activities like these generate much healthier hormones which support better behaviour and all-round well-being.


3) Screens interfere with the production of melatonin, the hormone which supports quality sleep. Some researchers advise that we turn all devices off an hour before sleep (adults included!), but as a minimum, ensure blue-light filters are switched on (usually in your device’s settings).


4) Help prepare your kids for switching off by giving them regular ‘count-downs’; I recommend 15, 10, 5, 2 & 1 minutes. Their brains may not be tuned into your words at all so remember that a nod means nothing! Ensure they’ve registered what you’ve said by asking them to confirm & repeat back to you.


5) If you do end up being confronted with their frustration or anger, do your best to respond without mirroring their behaviours; it just gives them a reason to fight. The ‘survival brain’ is terrible at interpreting facial expressions, so avoiding eye-contact can really help to diffuse the conflict until everyone’s a bit more composed and back in control.


Author: Jo Stockdale, Founder of Well Within Reach