The Effects of Screen Addiction

Our kids are growing up in an increasingly technology saturated world. Today’s households typically contain at least two televisions, desktop and laptop computers, iPads, iPods, gaming devices and mobile phones.

Most parents struggle with trying to balance their child’s life with outdoor play, sport and indoor activities, usually involving screen time. Many parents also feel they are losing the screen time battle as their children become more and more addicted to these devices. Researchers advise that it is not just teenagers who become addicted to their devices. Children as young as five can display addictive tendencies related to screens.
There is no doubt though that these devices, if overused, can lead to physical and mental issues in children.

Screen time causes the sensory system to become overloaded and interferes with the chemistry of the brain. Children who are addicted to their devices often have trouble with:

  • Attention span: Screen time depletes mental reserves, lowering children’s ability to pay attention and process things in both their internal and external environments. With an inability to properly process demands, angry behavior and meltdowns often result. Children who use multiple devices at once show a particular lack of attention span due to the brain having to refocus frequently.

  • Concentration: Technology stresses the brain, causing it to release more cortisol which can kill neurons in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center. Screen devices also take away the brain’s need to concentrate on and process information, since they basically do all the thinking for it. Poor memory and focus can also be caused by associated effects of technology use such as restless sleep.

  • Cognitive reasoning: Stress on the brain also causes the prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control among many other things, to shut down. An inactive prefrontal cortex can no longer regulate the brain’s dopamine level, which is responsible for a child’s sense of pleasure and reward. The brain gets used to a higher level of dopamine which compels the child to continue feeding their technology addiction.
The emotional effects of too much screen time can also wreak havoc on a child’s mental health and well-being. Children who have a technology dependence are often less happy than children who do not, and may develop adverse effects such as:​
  • Poor impulse control: Children often become more impulsive when they use too much technology, due to the prefrontal cortex becoming inactive. Impulsive behavior, outbursts and temper tantrums can result. Over time, these changes may actually permanently change the structure of the brain. The “on demand” nature of technology, with its immediate gratification, also reduces impulse control in children.

  • Restless sleep: Light from screen devices suppresses melatonin, which disrupts the body clock. As a result, sleep patterns are interrupted, causing high arousal and lack of deep, healing sleep. Sleep may also be disrupted by early waking, late bedtime or waking during the night to use technology. The visual and cognitive stimulation produced by technology can also disrupt normal sleep patterns.

  • Higher stress levels: Screen time induces stress reactions that can result in moodiness, irritability and depression. Both acute and chronic stress hormones change brain chemistry and affect the area of the brain that regulates mood. In addition, violent video games are linked to increased aggression, a lack of empathy and desensitization to violence.

  • Low self-esteem: There is a definite link between self-esteem and technology. Since technology often causes children to shut out the world around them, they may be more isolated and have difficulty making and maintaining friendships. They may not have an accurate sense of self, have poor social skills and feel more anxious than their non-addicted peers.

In addition to the effects on the brain, screen time also reduces children’s physical activity level and “green” time spent outdoors. Green time can naturally lower stress and aggression levels, restore attention and boost mood. Too much time spent using technology indoors can cause other adverse physical effects such as obesity and general poor health.