What is too much screen time doing to our kids' mental health?

February 18, 2016 | by Janice Kowalski, M.D.

Your child is moody, restless and ready to snap. Your first inclination may be to hand over an iPhone, iPad or tablet. But the better choice may be to keep it away.  

In today’s high-tech world, we need to know what excessive screen time is doing to our children’s emotional well-being. Anxiety and depression in young people is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly 20 percent of American children experience a mental disorder in a given year.

For some children, too much screen time exacerbates an underlying mental disorder. But have we also considered that for other kids, the effects of excessive screen time may be mimicking a mental disorder? Before handing out a diagnosis, experts need to rule out if screen time is influencing kids’ mental health.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that the average child spends seven hours a day looking at a screen, be it a cell phone, computer, TV or other electronic device.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than we may realize. Research has linked excessive screen time to school problems, aggression and other behavioral issues. The “sensory overload” causes kids to have poor focus and depletes their mental energy, which often leads to anger and explosive behavior. Kids become overstimulated and “revved up,” and they may have a difficult time managing stress and regulating their mood.

Too much screen time also disrupts your child’s sleep, which can cause mood disturbance and cognitive issues. A child behind the screen has less time for active, creative play and exercise, putting them at greater risk for obesity and emotional issues.

One study, reported by the AAP, measured the effects of excessive screen time on children’s psychological well-being. The results concluded that children who spent more than two hours per day in front of a screen had greater psychological difficulties, irrespective of physical activity.

How do you know if your child is overdoing screen time? Watch out for these signs:

  • Your child exhibits some these symptoms:
    • Irritable
    • Depressed
    • Excessive tantrums, mood swings
    • Low frustration tolerance
    • Defiant
    • Trouble sleeping
    • Disorganized behavior
    • Learning difficulties
    • Poor short-term memory
  • Your child’s symptoms are causing major problems in school, at home or with peers.
  • Your child’s symptoms improve after 3-4 weeks of strict removal of electronics.
  • Symptoms return with the re-introduction of the electronics.

For successful treatment, the clinician will have to rule out if excessive use of electronics is causing such symptoms. If excessive screen time is shown to occur alongside a true mental disorder, restricting electronics may be part of the solution to helping your child feel better.

If you’re wondering whether to limit your child’s screen time, try it out for a few weeks and see if you notice any differences in your child’s mood. It can be difficult to resist screens in today’s hectic world, but isn’t it worth it if your child is calmer, happier, more focused and better able to handle stress?

What mental health effects of too much screen time have you seen in your child? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Read the AAP’s guidelines on children and media use.

Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Janice Kowalski, MD is a psychiatrist with Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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