(April 2 – Correction: Information on the AAP policies below has been edited. Thanks to the readers – Diana and P – who caught the error!)
It’s a scene we’re sure you’ve witnessed again and again:
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Okay, fine, you might be saying. I’ll curtail the screens at night, and let my children play their video games, use the computer and watch TV in the afternoon.
We wish it were that simple.
If your child’s screen use is focused on reading chapter books off a Kindle or typing in a word processing program, no problem. (Again, as long as it’s not at night when the blue wavelengths in the white LEDs will impact sleep patterns.)
But who among our kids spends his primary media time doing that? Our kids are playing fast-paced video games, watching cartoons and TV shows with plenty of action and jumping from photo to chat to status update on social media.
The rapid-fire changes that happen in most screen activities, from video games to recorded entertainment to social media updates, affect two parts of the brain:
- the visual processing system
- the vestibular system
The Eyes Have It
Let’s discuss the visual processing system first.
The faster the changes in the sensory information you’re taking in, the faster your brain needs to process it in order to keep up.
If the pace required is so fast it exceeds your brain’s threshold, you may experience sensory overload. That’s the “STOP! TOO MUCH! I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!” feeling – the one we sometimes get when we’re trying to cook dinner AND our baby is screaming and smelling like a horrendously dirty diaper AND our 3 year old is yanking on our shirt hem and whining he’s hungry AND our 6 year old is shoving a drawing in front of our eyes and yelling, “Look, Mom! Look at it!”
Too much to process. Shut down. Good night. (Well, we wish. We parents usually have to recover pretty fast in situations like that.)
The rapid-fire changes on typical screen entertainment are much faster than the typical visual changes of ordinary, unscreened life – the visual changes that our brain has been wired over the millennia to deal with.
Yet these rapid changes don’t often cause perceptible visual sensory overload. They usually come in just under the threshold. The child can keep up with the processing, but their brain is working super-fast to do so.
Often parents of children with ADD/ADHD diagnoses will tell us, puzzled, “I don’t understand. My child has trouble focusing on most things, but when it comes to TV or video games, I can’t get him to stop. I can wave my hand in front of his face, touch him or say his name loudly and it’s like I’m not there. He seems super-focused!”
And he is. Children (especially with ADHD) often get into a state of hyper-focus, because their brain is so super-busy processing all the fast-changing visual information.
This hyper-focus affects children more than adults (and in younger children more than older children) because the visual system itself is still developing, so the younger a child is, the more they have to focus in order to deal with all the information coming in.
Eventually you pull them away from the screen. And pandemonium breaks loose.
If they were super-focused before, they are now super-UNfocused. They’re hyper. They’re acting out. They’re in an awful mood.
Coming off the Visual Fast-Track
Your child’s brain was in super-fast, super-busy mode, processing all that visual stimuli. Suddenly all that visual stimuli stops. There’s nothing left to process.
But the brain is still in super-fast, “hyper” mode. Until it readjusts to real life and a normal pace (which takes time), your child will be bouncing off the walls in an unconscious attempt to find stimuli moving at the artificially fast pace of his brain.
That’s not all.
The visual system is closely linked to the vestibular system – the sensory system that controls balance and your perception of where your body is in space. The vestibular system also has a significant impact on mood. The perception of linear acceleration is calming (as most of us have experienced when rocking, swinging, walking or driving a cranky baby to sleep) and the perceptional of rotational acceleration is arousing.
When your child’s visual system was super-busy processing, it locked up the vestibular system, putting mood on an artificially even keel. Remember your child’s lack of response when you waved your hand in front of his face? He wasn’t in a bad mood; he wasn’t in a good mood; he was in NO mood.
Now his vestibular system has been released from its freeze, and it’s having just as hard a time readjusting. Mood swings, anyone?
Let’s take a look at how to get your child from screen time back to real life without crashes and meltdowns.
Jump My Sillies Out
When you end your child’s screen time, don’t just let her chill out. Because she WON’T be chilling out. She’ll be jumping out of her skin.
To reset the pace of her body and brain, jump her back INTO her skin. Use the vestibular system. Get your child moving. Jump, swing, run around. The linear acceleration will reset the vestibular system and calm the entire body.
This is even if your child has had “active” screen time, like working out with a Wii or playing Pokemon Go or some other augmented reality game. They may be getting exercise, but they’re also overstimulating their visual processing system. The screen offsets the vestibular benefit of the movement, so you’ll still need some “unplugged” movement in order to reset the vestibular system and get the body back on track.
Using physical activity is a good short-term technique to reset the vestibular and visual system and get your child back into normally-paced life more smoothly.
As a long-term strategy, it leaves much to be desired.
As we mentioned above, a child’s visual processing system is still significantly developing before the age of 2, and final development isn’t reached until 8 or 9 years old. It’s still unclear exactly what the effects of media exposure with its rapid-fire changes are for a developing system.
There is a concern, however, that repeated incidents of super-busy processing during stages of development could cause permanent changes in the processing pace that the brain seeks. Your two-year old could potentially grow up feeling “comfortable” in the super-fast pace of screen media stimulation and uncomfortable in the normal pace of everyday life.
Her performance might be high in gaming and internet information processing, but what about performance in low-tech activities such as building relationships? Parenting? Achieving greatness at anything, from sports to music to business?
These true, satisfying achievements happen only at the pace of the natural world, not at the artificially accelerated pace of the screened world. They require focus, dedication, persistence and patience – even when the going seems slow, frustrating and boring in the moment.
Set Your Child Up for Success
We appreciate how much parents want to give their child the tools and resources to achieve the most they can.
That’s why it pains us. Because while the parent thinks they’re doing something positive – or at least neutral – for their child by setting them in front of screen media, they’re actually interfering with the child’s natural, healthy development. The younger the child is, the greater the interference and future consequences.
Why set a child up for issues and limitations that may or may not be conquerable?
Why put a child on track for difficulties in life from age 2?
We work all the time with children to enable them to overcome behavioral and emotional limitations caused by processing issues, so they can have a happy, functioning life full of achievement and satisfaction.
You, as a parent, have an even more powerful role to play. You can give your child the best shot at that life from the outset, and minimize the chances of needing external intervention.
As a caring, dedicated parent, we know you want it.
And you can do it.
Even if you want to reduce screen time, the process can be a challenge, as children usually object and (depending on the effect the screen media has on that particular child) may act out. Here is Part 2 of this article: Why It’s So Hard to Feel Like You’re a Good Parent When It Comes to Screen Time… and What You Can Do About It – dealing with practical and emotional strategies for managing and reducing screen time in a healthy way for your child – and you!