Plugged In and Tuned Out: The Effect of Electronics on Children

Under Christmas trees all over Utah, smart phones, tablets, and gaming devices are wrapped up in festive paper waiting to light up the faces of children everywhere—literally.

Electronics are a staple of the way we live today but health professionals are concerned about the amount of “screen time” children receive on a daily basis. Dr. Broadbent from Ogden Clinic’s Farmington location shares some insight about the health consequences of excessive electronics use. “A child’s brain is very susceptible to the effects of electronics because it’s in the early developmental stages.” Dr. Broadbent shared a few specific ways electronics can impact a child’s developing brain and body.

What are some of the effects of electronics on children?

Exploiting Dopamine = Attention and Behavioral Issues

Electronics are addicting because they exploit the body’s reward system to release dopamine (the “feel good drug”) in the brain. When our reward system is overused, even more stimulation is needed to experience the same amount of pleasure. Dopamine is also critical for focus, so even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can impact the way a child’s brain functions.

Like a snowball effect, a child with decreased focus may eventually have other behavioral issues like aggression. What parents see as explosive behavior in their child is actually poor focus. Because electronics require high visual and cognitive input, a young brain’s mental energy becomes depleted and mental reserves decrease with too much screen time. One way to temporarily boost the reserves in the brain is to become angry. “Bursts of anger or meltdowns are actually a coping mechanism,” says Broadbent.

Suppressing Melatonin = Amount and Quality of Sleep

Using electronics before bed is an all-around poor idea because the glow of a screen mimics the daytime and suppresses melatonin, a sleep signal that our brain releases with darkness. Just a few minutes of screen-time can delay sleep by several hours and desynchronize the body’s internal clock. Getting enough sleep is important for developing brains and bodies and the quality of “deep sleep” is equally important. Deep sleep is how the body heals itself and the high arousal from electronics can prevent young minds from reaching deep sleep.

Sedentary Fun = Weight Gain

“The more a child is sitting and playing an electronic game, the less that child is out playing and exercising,” says Dr. Broadbent. “Electronics can promote a very sedentary lifestyle that eventually leads to weight gain.” Dr. Broadbent acknowledges that other factors contribute to weight gain such as diet, but electronics certainly share the fault.

How can I help my child have a healthy relationship with electronics?

“In a recent statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children receive no more than two hours a day of media use. This includes time watching TV, surfing the internet, and playing electronic games or other devices,” says Dr. Broadbent. Broadbent gave four key recommendations for parents:

  1. Set time limits. Children are often pleasure-seeking creatures and not always in tune to the consequences of their actions.
  2. When using electronics, encourage uplifting and educational programs. This helps teach children and keeps the content healthy and appropriate.
  3. Keep TVs, computers, and other electronics out of the bedroom. This helps to control time limits, avoid screen-time before bed, and helps parents control the content of what kids are viewing.
  4. Do not rely on electronics as self-entertainment. “Sometimes when parents come into my office for appointments, they pull out their phone and hand it to their kids to keep them entertained.” Broadbent understands that this has its place, but when it happens routinely, children start believing the only way to be quiet is with an electronic device. “It’s important to avoid teaching children that the only way to self-entertain or control their behaviors is with an electronic device in their hand.”

Electronics are vital part of society today. Kids will use electronics throughout their life and benefit from them when they’re used correctly. Parents and teachers need to be aware how to limit the use of electronics with children and help children establish a healthy relationship with their devices.