Two children looking at a tablet on the floor

Computers. TVs. Mobile phones.

We spend a lot of time interacting with digital screens every day—even more so now that COVID-19 has necessitated a rise in teleconferencing and distance learning. But how often do we consider the effects of too much screen time on our brains? What about the brains of our children, whose minds are still growing and maturing? 

When you sit back and think about it, it makes you wonder: does prolonged screen time affect children’s brain development? When should we introduce screens into a child’s learning process, and what are the effects of doing it too early?

What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Your Brain?

At the Carolina Brain Center, we’ve made it our life’s work to study and treat neurological dysfunction in patients, both young and old. As technology becomes a larger and more significant part of our everyday lives, we believe it is crucial for parents and patients alike to be well-informed about the consequences of spending too much time in front of a screen. 

Digital devices of all kinds are powerful tools for learning and communication, but they can also disrupt vital neurological progress. For example, too much screen time has been linked to childhood obesity, irregular sleep, behavioral problems, and impaired academic performance. 

Below, we’ll explain why and how too much screen time is bad for developing brains, as well as what steps parents can take to protect their children from the effects of too much social media, television, and video games.

The Neurological Effects of Too Much Screen Time

Although not yet believed to be among the leading causes of developmental disorders in children, prolonged screen time has been found to have a profound effect on their neurological maturation.

The National Institute of Health’s Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study found that children ages 9-10 who had more than two hours of screen time each day got lower scores on thinking and language

A boy in a blue striped shirt and yellow pants wearing a virtual reality headset

 tests. Furthermore, MRI scans of children with more than seven hours of screen time a day showed premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that allows for critical thinking and reasoning.

We all know how addictive smartphones and social media apps like Facebook, Tik Tok, Instagram, and Snapchat can be, but using the word “addictive” isn’t quite the hyperbole many assume. Another study conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that adolescent social media use triggers the brain’s dopamine reward center. This creates a feedback loop wherein the more time a young person spends using electronic devices, the more they want to continue doing that.

Children who experience this kind of “tunnel vision” often suffer developmental shortcomings, as the time they would typically spend building neural pathways through other types of interactions is instead spent repeating the same digital interactions over and over again. Too much screen time can impede their ability to learn new things, communicate with others, stay focused on other tasks, and even sleep properly.

To help recover from the effects of too much screen time, it is important to increase your daily exposure to nature, fresh air, greenery, and sunlight.

Parenting Advice for Moderating Screen Time 

As worrying as the above research findings can be regarding the effects of too much screen time, the fact is that any child growing up in modern society cannot avoid coming into contact with digital screens. Nor should they. As with anything, a key component in staying healthy, both physically and mentally, is moderation. When leveraged correctly, electronic media can be a beneficial tool in one’s life, especially with the current environment of social distancing and quarantines.

To help parents concerned about the negative effects of too much screen time on developing minds, here are some helpful tips and guidelines to make moderating your child’s screen times easier. 

Avoid Early Screen Exposure 

For children aged 18 months or younger, avoid introducing them to tablets, smartphones, and TVs altogether. This age is when a child’s brain is the most sensitive and malleable, and normal cognitive development depends on freedom from digital distractions. Children older than 18 months up to two years old should similarly have their screen time kept to a bare minimum.

Limit the Amount of Screen Time A young boy and girl sitting on a coach watching a video on their tablet

Between ages 2-5, a child’s screen time should be limited to about an hour each day unless absolutely necessary—such as in the case of pandemic-mandated online classrooms—and parents must be present throughout. Parental presence ensures that the programming/interactions children are exposed to are high-quality and educational and also helps them understand what it is they’re seeing and doing.

Supervise Your Child’s Screen Time

From ages 6-12, parents should implement specific times when screen usage is appropriate and when it is inappropriate, such as during family meals, designated homework hours, bedtime, and the like. Ensuring that a child balances their screen time with adequate physical activity, social interaction, and undisturbed sleep is essential.

By following these guidelines, you will help to ensure that your children are not exposed to too much screen time while their brains are still developing. 

The Carolina Brain Center Provides Holistic Healthcare in Raleigh, NC

With more than 20 years of experience, Dr. Dane and the Carolina Brain Center team are committed to helping patients achieve the highest standard quality of life through a unique multi-disciplinary approach to neurological treatment.

Whether you or a loved one suffers from epilepsy, Parkinson’s, ADD, developmental disorders, or the aftermath of a stroke, concussion, or another traumatic brain injury, we can help. For more information about receiving holistic healthcare in Raleigh, NC, contact the Carolina Brain Center today!