April 13, 2021
Excessive Time on Devices Can Impact Developing Brains in More Ways Than One
Research shows that our brains don’t fully develop until about age 25. While we continue to learn into adulthood, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that helps control impulsive behavior—is not yet mature throughout our adolescence.
What’s Happening in Kids’ Brains When They’re Watching Screens
That natural lack of impulse control combined with unlimited screen time can be the recipe for everything from limited creativity and attention span to issues with mental health. Hours of screen time can also take time away from other activities, like exercise and sleep, necessary for kids’ physical and cognitive development.
The effects of screen time can have a substantial negative impact on your kid’s brain. A recent study by the National Institutes of Health showed that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screen time activities score lower on language and thinking tests. And kids who spend more than seven hours a day on screens show a thinning of the brain’s cortex, which manages critical thinking and reasoning.
Research shows what the adverse effects of too much screen time look like. Brain scans show that internet-addicted teens have shrunken gray matter, dictating critical processes like planning, empathy, and impulse control. And those teens also show disconnected white matter, which integrates different parts of the brain.
Most experts recommend a maximum of two hours a day of screen time, but distance learning has made that impossible for parents to enforce. Still, restoring realistic screen time rules outside of school is good for our kids’ health and well-being as we ease back into normal life.
Six Ways To Reduce the Impact of Screen Time
If you want to help your kids spend less time in front of a device, there are a few ways to do it.
Balance good screen time with the bad
Excessive gaming and social media can trigger the brain’s reward system in the same way a slot machine does. You get a dopamine hit with every “Like,” notification, and game point as you would every time you land on triple 7s.
But not all screen time is bad—there’s plenty of enriching content that’s only possible with a device. Calls with distant relatives, interactive education apps, and informative videos help your kids interact, learn, and see the world in new ways.
Circle’s Focus Time can help you choose apps and websites that your kids can and can’t watch at specific times of the day, helping to keep digital distractions at bay. Talk to your kids about the impact of Likes, turn off notifications, and help curate their time online.
Co-watch with your kids
Most pediatricians recommend zero screen time for toddlers under age two. (The only exception is for video calls.) The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than an hour a day of age-appropriate media use for two- to five-year-olds.
It’s easy to set kids in front of a TV, smartphone, or tablet and let them choose what they want to watch. But that’s not best for kids' brains. Young kids aren't the best at picking quality programming, and studies have shown kids learn best from real-world interaction.
The best way to counteract these effects is to watch with your little one. Encourage them to interact with the content, like singing along with songs, and ask them questions about what they’ve seen. This helps kids create a connection between the media and real life.
Set a digital curfew
A restful night’s sleep is essential for healthy brain development. But screen media is designed to keep us hooked. Endless scrolling on social sites or beating the next level on a video game can replace a good night’s rest.
Studies also show that the blue light our screens emit can disrupt our sleep by curbing the production of melatonin, a sleep hormone. Without it, kids don’t get enough deep REM sleep, affecting behavior and learning.
Most experts recommend turning off devices one to two hours before bedtime and removing them from the bedroom overnight. Consistency is key to forming healthy habits. Circle’s Bedtime feature snoozes devices at the same time every night.
Being outside can improve your concentration, elevate your mood, and boost your overall health, while excessive screen time can impact all three. More than half of teens (56%) admitted feeling at least one of three negative emotions—loneliness, being upset, or feeling anxious—when they didn’t have their phone. And kids who spend more time in front of screens have been shown to get less sleep and exercise.
Excessive screen time is linked to obesity, possibly because time in front of a device replaces physical activity. For better health and less screen use, engage kids in walks, bike rides, or recreation that makes the great outdoors enjoyable for you.
Schedule family time
Digital distraction is an issue for kids and parents, and everyone can help limit your family’s amount of screen time. Schedule some digital device-free times to be together as a family, especially during meal times when you can talk with kids about their day and relieve some of the stress and anxiety of navigating life as a kid. Plus, as you model healthy screen time habits at home, your kids will likely start to follow suit.
Let minds wander
One of the best parts of parenting is watching your kid develop their passions. Help them engage in what they love to do, like music, sports, or art, so they don’t resort to wasteful digital media. Four in ten teens (43%) said they often or sometimes use their phones to avoid interacting with people. Help your kids learn how to be present with others too. Sure, devices can be great for social interaction during a pandemic, but nothing beats face-to-face interaction as kids’ brains develop. And having that digital downtime can force them to observe the world around them, helping to spark imaginations and strengthen their creativity.
Want to set new screen time limits for a new season? Check out Circle’s award-winning parental controls.