Gadgets and screens are being placed in the hands of younger kids, and it’s having a strong effect on their behavior.
“One of the first things I tell our teachers to ask during parent-teacher meetings is ‘How much screen time or TV-time is your child getting?’” says Michelle Lichauco-Tambunting, the directress and co-founder of Young Creative Minds Preschool. “If they've already had so much screen time, that's going to be the child who hardly sits down, who cannot finish a puzzle, who will not finish coloring, who will not share because they cannot wait for their turn.”
Too much screen time affects your child’s life in more ways than you think, explainsVictoria L. Dunckley, M.D., a child psychiatrist who specializes in children with complex or treatment-resistant mental health conditions, in articles for Psychology Today.
According to Dr. Dunckley, with too much screen time, a child becomes overstimulated with all those games and videos on his device. And, because the brain is always overloaded, it causes repeated and constant stress to his nervous system, lowering his ability to self-regulate.
When the effects of screen time do not present as a psychiatric disorder, like childhood bipolar disorder or ADHD, then your child could be experiencing what Dr. Dunckley calls as "Electronic Screen Syndrome" (ESS). An aspect of ESS is the “inability to modulate one’s mood, attention, or level of arousal in a manner appropriate to one’s environment.” For example, it may take very little for your child to burst out in anger or it may be very difficult for your child to get excited, say, for a family trip to the park.
As a tool to give parents a clue if screen time has negatively affected their child, Dr. Dunckley came up with a short test. “Traditionally when experts discuss red flags for problematic screen time they focus on addictive behaviors, many of which are readily apparent,” says Dr. Dunckley. “In contrast, this quiz is designed to help parents see the not-so-obvious ways in which screen time might be impacting a child or teen's behavior in a negative way.”
The quiz contains 25 questions that are related to your child's mood, cognition or focus, behavioral or social skills, attachment to devices, and level of addiction. We've picked a handful from each category for you to try out. Take note as well that all the items are signs of over-stimulation due to screen use. (Find the full quiz here.)
1. Does your child have meltdowns over minor frustrations?
2. Has your child become increasingly oppositional, defiant, or disorganized?
3. Do you worry that your child’s interests have narrowed recently, or that interests mostly revolve around screens? Do you feel his or her thirst for knowledge and natural curiosity has been dampened?
4. Does your child seem “wired and tired” — exhausted but can’t sleep, or sleeps but doesn’t feel rested? Does your child seem unmotivated and have poor attention to detail?
5. Is your child a “sore loser” or hyper-competitive when playing games or sports, to the point where it affects peer relationships or enjoyment of the activity itself?
6. Does your child lie about screen use, “cheat” when on restriction, or take their device to bed with them?
Count how many questions you answered with a “yes.” A higher score points to a higher likelihood that gadget use and screen time has affected your child.
“A classic presentation of ESS is irritable mood, poor focus or disorganization, low frustration tolerance, and problematic behaviors such as argumentativeness or poor eye contact. Depressed or anxious mood is also common,” says Dr. Dunckley.
For parents, a child’s screen addiction seems difficult to undo. Dr. Dunckley, however, says moms and dads can take control. She recommends getting your child off screens for a full three weeks, yes, for almost a month, at least. It will help reset your child’s brain and nervous system and lessen the symptoms of overstimulation from screens.
“Though the thought of this might seem overwhelming, most parents find the fast easier than they imagined it would be,” she said.
After the “screen fast,” you can better decide how to move on from here, whether the family will be going mostly screen-free or setting firm limits on screen time.
For more tips how to manage your kids' screen time and gadget use, click here.