3 Ways That Screen Time Is Affecting Your Child's Behaviour

The second session in our three-part Limiting Screen Time Series focused on the behavioural affects of screen use and how it affects children and teens in three distinct ways: physical health, ability to learn, and the ability to be empathetic.
Posted on 28 February 2020 by Miranda.

Behavioural Effects from Excessive Screen Time

One moment you’re watching a video online, then you’re distracted by a notification on your cell phone, then you get a text message, and then the video you were watching recommends another video. It’s overwhelming, right? To constantly have interruptions throughout our day that divide our attention?

Last week Carla Thorogood, who is a behavioral specialist working at a local high school, came to speak at the Medicine Hat Public Library about how the effects of constant and distracting screen use affects both adults and the behaviour of children and teenagers. This was the second session in our three-part Limiting Screen Time Series presented by Alberta Health Services

She spoke about screen use and behaviour in children and teens in three distinct ways: physical health, ability to learn, and the ability to be empathetic.

Physical Health

Have you ever been scrolling through social media on your cell phone and then gone straight to bed? If you have, then you might already be aware of how difficult it can be to fall asleep after staring at a screen. This difficulty happens because the blue light from a screen stops the natural process of melatonin, which is the hormone produced in our brains that help us to fall asleep and tell us when to wake up. Melatonin is triggered by the light fading throughout the day so by the time we go to sleep at night we’re tired. However, staring at a screen prevents this natural process from occurring and as a result many people aren’t getting a proper night’s sleep. This affects our daily lives because without proper sleep we are tired, moody, and can have a more difficult time focusing. For children and teenagers, this can make learning at school incredibly difficult. 

Thorogood recommends not looking at a screen about an hour before bedtime to allow the natural process of melatonin to help us get a good night’s rest. This means no cell phones in the bedroom for your children or teenagers. If they need an alarm to wake up in the morning she recommends buying a proper alarm clock rather than relying on an alarm on a cell phone. 

What can you do to help yourself fall asleep that doesn’t include a screen? Read a book! If you need some recommendations, email me (Miranda). 

Ability to Learn

Constantly being distracted by our cell phones or computers and fracturing our attention between multiple devices can cause mental fatigue and information overload. This happens when our brains are taking in too much information all the time. As a result, information and knowledge that we gain throughout the day doesn’t sit long enough in our short-term memory to actually make it into long-term memory, which is where it needs to be in order for us to recall it later on. Multitasking on multiple devices, or looking away from a classroom lesson to check a text message, doesn’t give our minds enough time to absorb the information long enough in order for it move it into long-term memory where it is needed. This impacts the learning of children and teenagers, not only is their attention span shorter from the constant division of their attention, but it also prevents information from going into long-term memory where it can be recalled. 

Thorogood recommends that screen devices such as cell phones should not be around when children and teenagers are doing homework or when they are learning something new. It’s important that while they are learning that the knowledge they are gaining is their sole focus to give that information enough time to move into long-term memory. 

Ability to be Empathetic

When children and teenagers are talking online, Thorogood finds that they say things to one another that they would never say in person. While chatting online children and teenagers can experience the “depersonalization effect,” this is when empathy for the person they are speaking to is lost because the conversation is happening through a screen rather than communicating in-person where you can see the other person’s face and body language. There is often a difference between how people act online and how they act in-person. Relationships in real life are deeper and more meaningful because you can see the other person, see their reactions, their emotions, and clarify something that was said in conversation. These facets of in-person conversation allow children and teenagers to learn and develop empathy. 

Her recommendations for this are to supervise what your children or teenagers are doing online. Being aware of who they are speaking to and what they are speaking about. Keeping the lines of communication open between yourself and your children is the most important element of healthier online habits. Also, ensure that your children or teens are going out and socializing. Ensure they are getting those in person interaction which are so important to healthy relationship development. Even playing video games together is better than playing video games alone. 

Behavioural Effects

There are cases where excessive screen use changes the behaviour of children and teenagerss to points where intervention is needed. There are two new diagnoses for this called Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder and Electronic Screen Disorder. These are some signs to look out for in your children or teenagers:  

  • For children, they are energetic and angry. Rather than using their words to explain how they are feeling or learning to properly manage their emotions, they explode.
  • For teenagers, they are depressed and withdrawn. They don’t go out with friends. There is amplified fighting with parents.

Fortunately, Thorogood spoke about some possible ways to manage and intervene with healthier screen habits to prevent these behaviours. The number one thing she recommends is being informed about your child’s screen habits; what are they doing when they are online? How much time are they spending online? Be actively engaged with your child’s online life. In some extreme cases she suggests removing screens from your child’s life altogether for a few weeks which has shown to help improve their behaviour.  

The second recommendation is to be informed on how best to regulate your child’s screen time. Have designated screen free zones and times, such as dinner time. Manage how much time they are spending online and monitor what they are doing. 

What More Can You Do?

If you would like to know more about managing and monitoring screen use, attend our third and final session in the Limiting Screen Time Series on Wednesday, March 4 at 7:00 pm in the Library’s Honor Currie Room, and give our 4 Effective Ways to Limit Your Kids Screen Time blog post a read. But most importantly, remember that children mimic behaviour so it’s important to put our screens away when we are with the kids to properly model that behaviour. 

A great book recommendation on this subject is by Victoria L. Dunckley, MD called Reset your Child’s Brain.

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