Our smartphones—we’d feel lost without them. They serve many purposes; sometimes they are a quick way to distract fussy or “bored” children and keep them occupied. There’s a growing amount of evidence, however, that the use of electronic devices can be harmful to children.
A recently published population-based study of over forty-four thousand participants looked at the effects of screen time on children aged two to seventeen years and is the newest to point to a very disturbing issue:
“After 1 h/day of use, more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.” (1)
Screen time included television, smartphones, computers, and other electronic devices. On a scale of low use of one hour a day, moderate use at four hours a day, and high use at seven or more hours a day, the incidence of depression, anxiety, and mental illness was twice the rate for high users than low users. Even moderate users were found to experience lesser psychological well-being than low or no users of personal electronic devices. The observations in the study were consistent regardless of race, sex, and socioeconomic status.
This is particularly disturbing when you take into account that pre-teens spend an average of six hours a day in front of a screen and most teenagers average more than nine hours—and that’s apart from using computers for school work. (2)
Poor Physical Health
The relationship between children’s screen time and poor physical health has been definitively established.
A great body of research has linked children’s excessive screen exposure to poor diet, childhood obesity, diabetes, poor sleep, and lowered general physical fitness. (3, 4, 5, 6) As we know, it’s impossible to separate physical from mental health. When someone spends an inordinate amount of time looking at a screen, necessary daily motor movement is reduced significantly. A comprehensive Canadian study found detrimental effects across the health board for children who engage in more than two hours of screen time on a daily basis and recommends no more time than that, in favor of physical activities. Children are not meant to be sedentary. (7)
Mental Health and Cognitive Development
Other research has found a relationship between impaired brain development in young children and exposure to electronic devices. The younger the child, the greater the relative rate of development; “the critical period” between birth and age three is when the neural network is most rapidly forming and laying the foundation for the rest of life. Children’s experience and environment during this time is extremely influential in how the brain grows. (8)
Higher amounts of screen time for young children has been directly associated with poor brain development and behavioral problems. (9, 10) In fact, more than two hours a day of screen time in pre-school children can delay mastery of language and cause underdeveloped memory, poor reading and math skills, and sometimes trouble distinguishing virtual from physical reality. (11)
Giving Your Child a Smartphone is Like Giving them Drugs
Giving your child a smartphone is like “giving them a gram of cocaine,” warns Mandy Saligari, a top addiction therapist working in the United Kingdom. (12)
Long periods of time spent messaging on Instagram, Snapchat or any other social app can be just as addictive as drugs and alcohol. Some studies have shown that “coming off” smartphones can cause withdrawal symptoms.
Screen Time and Adolescents
Pre-teenagers and teens are no less at risk for harm caused by too much screen time. As children get older, their use of electronics changes from entertainment and education to social interaction—often replacing face-to-face human contact. With increased use, many adolescents become addicted to their devices, as the brain releases dopamine (the pleasure hormone) with certain visual stimuli and engagement. (13) Ninety-one percent of teens access social media on at least an occasional basis, with more than half more than once a day. (14)
This excessive use of electronic devices can cause a hormone imbalance and affect neurotransmitters in the brain. This imbalance can affect behavioral and emotional responses; addicted adolescents can experience anxiety, depression, impulsivity, and insomnia. (15) “Facebook Depression” is a real condition characterized by mental health and self-esteem issues.
From an article published by the American Psychological Association:
“[Among students in grades 8, 10, and 12] psychological well-being (measured by self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness) suddenly decreased after 2012. Adolescents who spent more time on electronic communication and screens (e.g., social media, the Internet, texting, gaming) and less time on nonscreen activities (e.g., in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, attending religious services) had lower psychological well-being. Adolescents spending a small amount of time on electronic communication were the happiest.” (16)
Further, adolescents who spend a lot of time on their smartphones can develop “text neck”: a repetitive strain injury caused by hunching over a handheld device. Muscle pain in the neck, shoulders, and back can result from the commonly-assumed head-forward posture. The Cleveland Clinic reports that an increasing number of teens and pre-teens are being treated for pain associated with this condition. If left unaddressed, “text neck” can create other musculoskeletal problems, including respiratory, heart, and circulatory issues. (17)
Additionally, physical manifestations of cell phone dependence or addiction can include the development of vision, hearing, and tactile problems. Common behaviors associated with other types of addiction (including substance abuse and gambling) have been linked to teens’ screen addiction as well. (18)
Screen Time Recommendations
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following daily maximum screen time limits for children:
- no screen time for children less than eighteen months of age
- less than one hour for children aged two to five
- consistent limits for children age six and older, with diligent monitoring of behavior and adequate physical activity and interpersonal activities. (19)
Digital media has its place in children’s lives, as long as it doesn’t replace real-life experience or interactive learning and personal relationships. The consequences of overuse can influence children’s physical and mental health in the short and long terms.