How Screen Time Impacts Children

February 02, 2018

Letting your child watch or play with electronic devices may seem harmless, but these devices can cause unseen damage to your child’s brain development and health. The younger a child is, the more important it is to control his or her exposure to media screens (including e-readers, computers, tablets and smart phones). These devices emit electromagnetic radiation that can harm and stunt brain development. Children 0 through 5 years old are especially susceptible to the detrimental effects of media screens.

Problems Stemming From Excessive Screen Time

According to research, excessive media exposure can potentially lead to the following problems:

  • Attention disorders
  • Obesity
  • Language and cognitive delays
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Less-developed emotional and social interactions
  • Sleeping problems
  • Decreased instances of healthy playtime
  • Slower development of problem-solving skills

Any of these problems can cause difficulty in school and can make it challenging for a child to develop normal relationships.


Social media, video games, television shows and movies are fascinating to children, but may cause sensory overload. The vivid colors and fast-moving images are much more rapid than children encounter in normal life. Even the wide variety of sounds children are exposed to when watching movies or games can over-stimulate the brain.

Many children enter a hyper-focused state to keep up with the rapid activities they see on the screen. When they are removed from the excessive stimulation, they often react by becoming hyperactive. This is because they have a hard time switching their brains from super-stimulated “screen time” mode to the normal pace of everyday life.

Sleep Disruption

It turns out the brain’s natural sleep cycle is easily disrupted by exposure to electronic devices that are illuminated by LED. This includes smart phones, computers, video games, tablets and televisions. These devices can disrupt a child’s sleep cycle by suppressing the natural production of melatonin. Lack of sleep can lead to a variety of problems, including behavioral and emotional issues.

Insufficient sleep can also negatively impact the immune system and has been associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This disorder interferes with a child’s ability to develop and function properly and often causes problems with inattention and hyperactivity.

Brain Development

Children who watch television or interact with screens excessively often grow to prefer screen time over social interactions. Playing video games or watching television require less social skills than playing with friends and solving problems.

Unfortunately, excessive screen time can have a profound impact on brain development, especially before the age of 2. During this important developmental period, the visual processing system and the brain undergo critical development. Research suggests that exposing children younger than 2 to excessive screen time can permanently alter the brain’s rate and manner of development.

Emotional Problems

Your child’s vestibular system (the one that controls balance, equilibrium and motion perception) has an impact on mood. Watch a fussy baby be calmed down by gentle bouncing or rocking movements and you’ll see this system in action. The vestibular system is connected to the visual system, which can be trained by rapid-moving electronics to process information at an abnormally fast speed.

When your child’s visual and vestibular systems are excessively engaged by hyper-stimulating media, they can freeze up and cause the child to become even-tempered during screen time. However, temper tantrums and “unexplainable” mood swings can occur when the media is removed and the child’s vestibular and visual systems are no longer frozen by rapid-speed stimulation. The brain has a hard time adjusting to the slower pace of real life, which is why mood swings can occur.

You may be able to help your child calm down by encouraging him or her to actively play. Physical activity can help the vestibular system reset and stabilize mood.

Recommended Screen Viewing Guidelines

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a few recommendations for screen time. They include:

  • Creating electronic-free spaces in the home where family members are encouraged to play, converse and interact with each other.
  • Allowing children between 2 and 5 years old to have only one hour of screen time each day.
  • Keeping digital media away from children under the age of 2. Video-chatting with family is permitted.
  • Providing children 5 years old and older with clear screen limits, including media type, total amount per day, and the time of day when media use is permitted.

It is wise to follow all of these guidelines in your home, if possible. Following them will help your children avoid common developmental problems associated with excessive screen time.

Additional Resources and Source Material:

Give Your Child the Best Chance of Success in School With These Three StrategiesThe Benefits of Strength-Based Parenting

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