For adults, digital screens started as a novelty and slowly transitioned into a tool that we use in our everyday lives. Whether it’s for work, to keep up with friends and family, or for entertainment — these screens are a clear-cut separation from reality. However, this is not the case for our youth.

This emerging generation spends a considerable amount of their developmental years in front of screens every single day. Studies from The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimate that children are getting roughly 7 hours of screen time per day. 

Unfortunately, excessive screen time is negatively impacting the psychological well-being of children around the country. This creates a unique and disheartening dilemma, as education initiatives push further and further into the digital world — leaving children vulnerable to a wide range of psychological problems that could impact their future. 

Screentime During Childhood Development 

During our developmental stages, our brains are malleable and extremely impressionable — which is great for growth but presents a diverse range of high-risk interactions. So, how does this work with screens? As a relatively new phenomenon, the digitalization of entertainment, education, and overall interaction has only recently been studied. 

What we know is that kids learn by studying their immediate environment. Typically, this is a parent, guardian, sibling, teacher, or peers. When we introduce screens to such an extreme degree, we’re not only pulling kids away from their primary sources of development, but we’re also putting them into a sort of “tunnel vision.” What we mean is that they’re ignoring countless stimuli and activity around them in order to pay attention to a single screen. 

Think about this scenario. 

You’re walking through a park or a grocery store. Perhaps you’re even at an exhibit or historic site. You see kids in strollers or meandering with their parents everywhere, and what are they doing? They’re gripping their parent or guardians’ phone, ignoring all of the incredible reality around them. On the surface, this seems like a generational issue. The good ole, “appreciate what’s around you.” 

However, the issue goes so much further, as these kids are slow to learn even the most basic developmental foundations of language, social interactions, and communication from failing to observe the world around them. 

How Do Screens Impact Education? 

For young children, learning proper communication and language norms plays a major role in development and learning. Perhaps the biggest issue with excessive screen time is the lack of reciprocal language. 

Sure, a child can watch and listen to countless videos or songs and gain some understanding of language, but there’s no vocal reciprocation or body language to reinforce learning. 

Facial expressions and “back and forths” are crucial for language learning and overall educational progress. Through screens, children are only getting a passive understanding of social interactions. Even if there are webcam interactions, the intricacies of facial expressions or body language are limiting or dulled down. 

The Psychological Effects of Too Much Screentime 

It can be difficult to approach mental health with your children — especially when it involves such an integral part of their life. Electronics and digitalization aren’t the same as it used to be — and it can be difficult to reduce their intake, given the current state of the world. However, if you’re able to speak with them in a way that they understand — it can help prevent further issues down the road.

Just two hours of screen time per day could negatively impact scores on language and thinking tests. Some even more concerning results emerged from the same study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) showed that seven or more hours of screentime during developmental ages lead to thinning of the brain’s cortex. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been playing close attention to how screen time affects childhood well-being. One study found that children experiencing more than two hours of screen time per day faced increased psychological problems, even if their physical activities were increased. 

Some common symptoms can include:

  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Tantrums
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Disorganized behavior
  • Difficulty learning
  • Poor short-term memory

These symptoms are not underlying disorders; however, they could be exacerbating symptoms of an existing behavioral issue. If you suspect your child is experiencing excessive screen time that is negatively impacting their growth, development, or overall well-being — it may be time to restrict some electronics usage. 

If the behaviors persist, it may be helpful for some outside intervention like therapy or adolescent counseling.

Another reason why screens can affect your child’s psychology is by inhibiting healthy sleep. Our bodies are smart, so smart that they follow a strict circadian rhythm that mirrors the rising and the setting of the sun. It’s an important part of melatonin production. However, the blue light that gets emitted by most modern screens prevents healthy melatonin production, as it tricks the brain into thinking that the sun is up. As we all know, sleep is crucial for the mental and emotional health of young people, and without a healthy sleep schedule, behavioral issues, and psychological effects can arise. 

Wrapping Up: Tips for Parents 

Limiting screen time can be a tough endeavor. While there’s not much you can do about how your school manages screen time, you have control when your children are home. 

  1. Watch or engage with your kids. Screen time is inherently bad, and it can actually be a great way to interact with your child. Comment on what’s happening, ask questions, sing-along — whatever you can do to engage. 
  2. Don’t allow screen time too late at night. As we mentioned, screen time reduces melatonin production, which will lead to your child staying up at unhealthy hours. Stick to a routine, where there’s screen times and offline times that balance each other out. You don’t need to treat screens as a privilege necessarily, but make sure they’re aware of the difference between online and offline. 
  3. Be aware of your own screen time. If your kids see you glued to your phone or computer 24/7, it’s not going to make sense to them that it’s not healthy. Set a strong example and limit your own screen time. 

There you have it. Screens have a significant impact on our youth, and it’s important that we’re aware of the side effects this can cause. However, some foundational elements of development remain the same: nutrition, sleep, and exercise. There’s nothing wrong with some screen time sprinkled in here and there. 

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