If your child is getting too much screen time, it may be affecting their development - but there are ways to keep it in check.
Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., an integrative child psychiatrist and author of the book "Reset Your Child’s Brain," is a nationally recognized expert on the impact of screen time on brain health and development.
She coined the term “Electronic Screen Syndrome” to describe how electronics can overstimulate and detune a child’s nervous system, causing mood, focus, sleep and behavioral issues.
“Many children today have become overstimulated and dysregulated from too much screen time," said Dunckley. "They are ‘wired and tired.’ This can occur even with small but regular amounts of daily exposure."
Dunckley said there are ways to reset your child's brain.
"The reset consists of a strict, extended electronic fast or screen fast in which all interactive screen time is eliminated for several weeks," she said. "By eliminating all that intense and artificial stimulation, the ‘fast’ lowers stress hormones, rebalances brain chemistry and the reward pathways, resynchronizes the body clock, and boosts blood flow back to the brain’s frontal lobe."
At the same time, she said, children begin to naturally engage in other activities and to sleep better.
"Also critical to this process is that parent-child and family bonding take place," she said. "All these factors compound one another in a positive fashion, creating dramatic improvements in the child’s symptoms, functioning, and sense of well-being. Parents find themselves much less stressed and enjoying their child a lot more."
Dunckley said planning is critical for a proper reset.
Here are a few of the steps:
1. Educate yourself about the physiological changes that screen-time induces, such as the fight-or-flight response (hyperarousal), so you understand why it can cause changes in mood, behavior, sleep, and focus in children. This in turn helps you understand the rationale behind a strict fast and strengthens conviction.
2. Make sure all caregivers—spouse, babysitters, etc.—are on board with no screens during the fast. Work around people who won’t respect what you’re doing. Inform teachers as well.
3. Perform a thorough “screen sweep” in your home, your cars, and anywhere else devices might be lurking. Remove the devices from the home.
4. Inform your child or children about the fast. Be prepared for negative reactions and be ready to discuss what screen-free activities will take place in lieu of screen time. Make a four-week calendar to map this out.
Dunckley said her book will help parents through this process.
“The book outlines the physiological impacts that screen-time can induce which translate into various psychiatric, behavioral, learning, developmental, or neurological issues in children and teens," she said. "It presents dozens of case studies so readers can see how different children are affected in different ways, how the fast clarifies diagnoses and optimizes other treatments, and how typical issues are managed, such as school-related screen use.”
And the first few days will not be easy.
“The child may feel out of sorts, angry, or anxious as they learn to live without screens," Dunckley said. "With younger children, mood, attitude and play start to improve within days. For teens, it may take a week or two before you notice changes. For both children and adults, you’ll see improvements in meltdowns, focus, organization, agitation, irritable or depressed mood, defiance, and sleep by within a few weeks."
Many children start reading more, Dunckley said, and the rest tends to produce better eye contact and conversation, and even better grades.
"Creativity really starts to blossom and you’ll see more kindness and compassion with others, including toward siblings," she said. "These things are really exciting for parents to experience."
Dunckley said it takes several weeks for the body clock and brain chemistry to recalibrate.
"In working with several hundred cases, I’ve observed it takes at least three weeks to see significant changes but the benefits continue to build the longer you go," she said. "So now I advise four weeks minimum."
While the reset may start as an experiment, Dunckley hopes that once parents see the benefits they will continue fasting most screen time, or slowly introduce it only on weekends.
"Interestingly, it reportedly takes 21 days to change a habit, and this lines up with what we see with families—they’re able to make more permanent shifts in how they’re living,” she said.
And Dr. Dunckley says it is key for parents to make mental health and brain development a priority over technology use.
“The second is to base screen allowances not on blanket guidelines or social norms but on tolerability," she said. "Whether to keep extremely strict limits or to try reintroducing depends on how many risk factors the child has, how dysregulated he or she was before the fast, how addicted they may be, and what the parents’ wishes are."
She said if families reintroduce screens, they should go slow.
"In our program children also have to be exercising, doing chores and homework, socializing face to face, behaving respectfully toward adults, and not arguing about screen rights to obtain any screen privileges," she said. "When these criteria are met we know the child’s frontal lobe is functioning fairly well and that the parent-child hierarchy is intact, and vice versa—children who can’t meet these criteria likely aren’t ready to tolerate screens yet."