Soon, summer will be here! The kids will be out of school, and before long, you might hear the words, “I’m bored!” But, before you pull out the iPad or put on a movie, consider putting your kids (and maybe even yourself) on a digital detox. Why would you want to take a break from the digital world?

This series will cover a few reasons, including the dangers of artificial blue light exposure, the negative brain effects of scrolling and playing video games, and what kids miss out on when they don’t get to play in the dirt.

From Tic-Tac-Toe to Tik Tok

But first, how did we get here? A century ago, in the 1920s, kids spent most of their summer vacation playing or working outside. They would spend hours catching frogs, building forts, playing games, pretending, and exploring the woods or neighborhood. Those living on farms would help with chores like taking care of animals, gathering eggs, hauling water or firewood, gardening, and basic repairs like fixing a fence. They might even read a book under a tree.

Even in the 1980s, kids were spending about eight hours a week outside, compared to an average of four hours a week today. That means kids are spending less than half an hour outside a day. The time kids spend playing outdoors has been cut in half in just one generation. What happened?

Digital Disconnect from Nature

Technological advances might be great for business, efficiency, connecting people, and solving complex problems. Unfortunately, it’s not always the best thing for our health. As humans, we were designed with natural rhythms that correspond to the world around us.

For example, when the sun rises, we wake up and get ourselves ready to start the day. As the sun sets, we feel sleepy and start getting ready for bed. That’s our circadian rhythm, which follows the sun’s rising and setting.

Another way humans connect with the earth is by having our feet planted on the ground, a concept known as “grounding.” Grounding helps us connect to the electromagnetic charge naturally transmitted from the earth. Research has shown that it does many positive things for the body, including lowering inflammation and pain, improving sleep, lowering stress levels, and improving cardiovascular function.

When we spend a lot of time online or staring at a screen, we aren’t getting the natural increase and decrease in blue light that happens with sunrise and sunset. Instead, we’re getting bombarded by blue light all day long – light coming from our computer screens, tablets, smartphones, televisions, and even smartwatches.

Similarly, when spending more time online, we’re not as likely to be outside with our feet on the ground. Either way, time on the screen is cutting us off from some therapeutic aspects of nature.

Stats on Kids and Screen Time

Look at “a day in the life” of many kids these days. Kids may start the day playing games on their tablets, then text or play games on their smartphones on the school bus, and then spend classroom time on tablets or laptops. Then they are back to their smartphone on the ride home, and once home, they head to the computer to start homework. End the day with a video game or movie, and you can see how the screen time adds up.

With the increase in screen time at both school and home, kids aren’t getting outside and getting fresh air, sunlight, and time spent barefoot in the grass the way they used to.

The Kaiser Family Foundation did a 10-year study on children’s screen time; from 1999 to 2009. They found something quite startling. On average, kids (ages 8 to 18) spend over 7 ½ hours a day using electronic media. That report came out in 2010, and you know it hasn’t gotten better since then.

At the same time, mental health disorders in  children are on the rise:

  • Between 1980 and 2007, ADHD diagnoses have gone up by almost 800 percent.
  • Between 1994 and 2003, visits for childhood bipolar disorder didn’t just double or triple; they increased by 40 times!

What has changed in the environment over that time?

Electronic Screen Syndrome

Integrative Psychiatrist Victoria I. Dunckley, MD, blames this increase on electronic screen media. She says the technology harms children’s mental and physical health, including mood, learning, and behaviors. Excess screen time causes all these problems by messing with the nervous system.

This Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS), as she calls it, shifts the nervous system into “fight-or-flight” mode. You could also call it “stress mode.” This is a dangerous place to stay. Long-term, it causes chronic inflammation and, ultimately, disease. She explains:

“Regardless, over time, repeated fight-or-flight and over-stimulation of the nervous system from electronics will often eventually culminate in a dysregulated child. Importantly, ESS can occur in the absence of a psychiatric disorder and yet mimic one, or it can occur in the face of an underlying disorder and exacerbate it. One way to think about the syndrome is to view electronics as a stimulant (in essence, not unlike caffeine, amphetamines, or cocaine): electronic screen device use puts the body into a state of high arousal and hyperfocus, followed by a “crash.” This overstimulation of the nervous system is capable of causing a variety of chemical, hormonal, and sleep disturbances in the same way other stimulants can. And just as drug use can affect a user long after all traces of the drug are out of the body, electronic media use can affect the central nervous system long after the offending device is actually used.”

That last point is important. Electronic media/screen time can affect the nervous system for a long time after you’ve put the device away. Screens are literally rewiring the brain and nervous system to be more anxious and less balanced. It interferes with our ability to learn and connect with others.

Signs That Screen Time Is Affecting Your Kids

So, what are some signs that your child may be affected by electronic screen syndrome? Here are some potential signs highlighted by Dr. Dunckley. (However, these can also indicate other things are going on, such as food allergies, metal toxicity, and other imbalances):

  1. Mood- or stress-related symptoms, including depression, anxiety, panic attacks, tantrums, breakdowns, being easily frustrated, problems with self-control, a general state of disorganization, and oppositional defiant behaviors.
  2. Cognitive challenges, including learning difficulties and poor short-term memory.
  3. Behavioral issues, such as OCD, being socially immature, poor eye contact, having trouble connecting with friends, and poor sportsmanship.
  4. Sleep problems, such as insomnia or non-restorative sleep.
  5. Other nervous system symptoms, like tics, stuttering, hallucinations, and subtle seizure activity.

These screen effects can occur alongside mental health or behavioral disorders, making them worse. Excess screen time may also be the source of the symptoms. Getting off the screen for a while can help to sort that out.

Boys are more likely to be affected than girls, especially those diagnosed with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders.

The reality of growing up in the 2020s is that kids spend a lot of time on screens –particularly during the school year. That’s why summer vacation is a great time to do a digital detox.

Try A Digital Detox

The only way you’ll know what kind of impact screen time is having on your kids is to take a break. Dr. Dunckley recommends a strict fast from electronic media for at least three or four weeks. Watch for any improvements in symptoms or behaviors. Depending on the child, there could be a 180-degree difference. For others, there may be a dramatic improvement.

When you reintroduce the screens, keep an eye on the results. Do symptoms return?

Some potential benefits of a digital detox are less aggressive behavior, increased compliance, better moods, higher grades, and more balanced kids.

Ideas for Getting Started

Sometimes all you need is a good tool. The National Institutes of Health came up with a Screen Time Chart to help you see how much time your kids are spending in front of a screen. You can print out a chart for each child and post them on the fridge or near the computer or TV.

As mentioned, screen-related overstimulation can affect the body long-term, leading to chemical (neurotransmitter), hormonal, and sleep problems in kids. Addressing these can help with deeper sleep, brighter moods, improved behavior, and better grades. If you need help getting your child back in balance, contact a Wellness Way clinic today!

Resources:

  1. Children spend only half as much time playing outside as their parents did | Environment | The Guardian
  2. Earthing: Health Implications of Reconnecting the Human Body to the Earth’s Surface Electrons – PMC (nih.gov)
  3. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds | KFF
  4. ADHD among American Schoolchildren (srmhp.org)
  5. National estimates and factors associated with medication treatment for childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – PubMed (nih.gov)
  6. National trends in the outpatient diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder in youth – PubMed (nih.gov)
  7. Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized Disorder? | Psychology Today
  8. Parent Tips: We Can! Screen Time Chart (nih.gov)

We have an article relating to COVID and mental health decline as well as the two recent teen mental health articles!

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