Investigating the Effects of Screen Time on Children: Can Screen Time Be Addictive And Is It Harmful To My Child’s Cognitive and Socio-Emotional Development?
Parents often worry about the amount of time their child is spending on electronics and how it is affecting their social skills, motivation, attention, emotional regulation, and neurological functioning. Given the easy access to multiple media modes (TV, ipads, computers, iphones, etc.), electronics have become the “go to” in quiet moments. Screen time has also become the primary source of information and entertainment for children. Hence, these concerns are valid, particularly in light of the American Pediatric Association’s estimate that children in the U.S. spend an average of 7 hours a day on media devices.
A critical question to ask is does screen time effect neurological functioning (which can effect psychological and behavioral functioning), and if so what is the impact? There has been a significant amount of research conducted on this topic in recent years. An excellent research review article in Psychology Today outlines how excessive screen time has debilitating effects on brain tissue, including white matter, grey matter, and thickness, and how it can also impair dopamine functioning. The research suggests that the neurological changes impact sleep, attention, emotional regulation, impulsivity, cognitive functioning, and other executive functioning capacities. In sum, the research indicates that excessive screen time has a direct and negative effect on frontal lobe structure and functioning, and can also be addictive given the changes in dopamine functioning and receptors. Since this area of a child’s brain undergoes critical development until young adulthood, it makes sense that parents and professionals are concerned about the mass consumption of electronics, and the resulting effects of screen time on children.
Given the findings on screen time and neurology, researchers have turned their focus on the relationship between media use and behavioral and social-emotional functioning. UCLA recently conducted a creative study to demonstrate how electronic consumption can impair children’s ability to recognize emotions and non-verbal cues as reported by NPR. Researchers found that the students who went to camp for five days and did not have access to media devices scored significantly better when it came to identifying facial emotions or other nonverbal cues than the children who continued to have access to electronic devices. In the NPR report, both Dr. Greenfield from UCLA and Dr. Hogan from the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) caution parents and schools to better understand the effects of screen time on children. Currently, the AAP recommends limiting electronics for children to: “Limit entertainment screen time to less than one or two hours per day; in children under 2, discourage screen media exposure.”
Not surprisingly, researchers are now questioning and exploring the effects of screen time on very young children. A very informative article in The Guardian describes how researchers at Boston University School of Medicine feel that there is sufficient data that children under 30 months cannot learn as well from television and videos as they can from human interaction. Dr. Radesky in Pediatrics, Boston University School of Medicine strongly suggests that human to human, hands on interaction is the most beneficial for a child’s socio-emotional development, and she explains how early screen time might impair empathy, communication, and emotional regulation. Perhaps this is the next important step in research to better understand the impact of screen time on early neurological functioning, so that parents, teachers, and professionals can be better informed on how to manage screen time for children from infancy to young adulthood.