This is your brain on screens
Courtesy of Fotolia
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that virtually all young people benefit from a clean, solid, several-week long break
from interactive screen-time. By removing all unnecessary electronic devices, children, teens and young adults exhibit a more relaxed and even mood, better focus, deeper sleep
and improved functioning in the realms of school or work, home life, and social relationships.[*]
In fact, much of the time, progress is limited until
this factor is addressed, especially now that tech overuse is so ubiquitous.
When I first began using the electronic fast as a way to both clarify
diagnoses and reset the brain
, it was around the turn of the millennium, and I was focused primarily on abstention from gaming. Along the way I’ve found it necessary to add a growing number of devices (laptops, smartphones, ipads/tablets) and activities (texting, internet surfing, social media use) to the forbidden list in order to reverse stress-induced changes in brain
chemistry, circadian rhythms, sleep, and blood flow. If even a small amount of interactive screen-time remained (outside of school), the intervention didn’t work. On the other hand, I’d allow moderate amounts of television or movies—so-called passive screen-time—provided the content was slow-paced and non-animated (with the exception of older Disney animated movies), and that it was viewed on a television from across the room (and not the bedroom!). Meanwhile, many parents
were concerned about and limited TV time, but were under the impression that interactive screen-time was “better for the brain”—and thus did little to manage it.
Research on Interactive vs. Passive Screen-Time
But up until recently, I was hard-pressed to prove why the drastic reduction of interactive screen-time was so much more effective than eliminating the passive kind. All I could do was share my clinical observations of hundreds of patients: the typical over-stimulated, impulsive and hyperaroused kid “on screens,” the dramatic changes in mood, focus and compassion capacity while off of them (even if TV was allowed), and the setbacks that occurred when the handheld devices returned. Fortunately, I can now point to a few key studies that support this conclusion:
- In a large survey study distributed to over 2000 kindergarten, elementary school and junior high children in Japan, researchers observed that just 30 minutes of either computer use or gaming caused disturbed sleep and daytime fatigue, compared to 2 hours or more of TV required for similar effects.
- In a cross-over study comparing a single evening of excessive gaming vs. excessive television viewing, the gaming condition resulted in impairment of both sleep (altered sleep structure, specifically reduced slow wave sleep and prolonged sleep-onset) and cognition (in the form of verbal memory testing), while the TV condition caused inefficient sleep but did not change overall sleep “structure,” nor did it cause cognitive impairment.
- In the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll, researchers evaluated sleep impairment factors in adolescents and adults (of all ages), and found that interactive screen-time was a much stronger risk factor than use of passive media such as television. Furthermore, they discovered that adolescents and young adults endorsed the highest levels of interactive screen-time of any age group, and also reported the most severe sleep problems. Sleep quality, in turn, is a critical determinant in cognition and emotional regulation.
I’m not here to deny that television has ill effects, and there are decades of research that suggest that television viewing is associated with a variety of issues, including cognitive effects such as reduced creative play, slower language acquisition, and impaired attention.   But I do want to “call out” the stress-inducing nature of interactive screen-time; its very interactive-ness is overly stimulating to the nervous system—especially a developing one—via sensory and circadian reactions and psychological and physiological hyperarousal. Once the arousal-stress cycle becomes chronic, it will eventually cause damage to the nervous system. Mere “moderation” of screen-time is often not sufficient to interrupt this vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
And what about long-term developmental effects? Some research suggests that children today are functioning at cognitive levels three years younger than same-age peers did thirty years ago, and there appears to be growing numbers of psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders in children. In my practice, I’m seeing that children who are kept relatively screen-free, even in the face of significant learning and mental health issues, eventually outperform brighter children who’ve been exposed to excessive (or even “typical” amounts) of screen-time, most likely because the lack of unnatural stimulation in the screen-free kids leads to superior brain integration.
For more on how a structured electronic fast can help with mood, focus, and social skills, visit www.drdunckley.com/videogames/.
[*] Adult patients benefit from strict electronic fasts as well, but needless to say it’s difficult for them to agree to be —and then actually be—compliant.
 Yusuke Kondo et al., “Association between Feeling upon Awakening and Use of Information Technology Devices in Japanese Children,” Journal of Epidemiology / Japan Epidemiological Association 22, no. 1 (2012): 12–20.
 Markus Dworak et al., “Impact of Singular Excessive Computer Game and Television Exposure on Sleep Patterns and Memory Performance of School-Aged Children,” Pediatrics 120, no. 5 (November 2007): 978–85, doi:10.1542/peds.2007-0476.
 Michael Gradisar et al., “The Sleep and Technology Use of Americans: Findings from the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America Poll,” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine: JCSM: Official Publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine 9, no. 12 (2013): 1291–99, doi:10.5664/jcsm.3272.
 Matthew P. Walker, “The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1156 (March 2009): 168–97, doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04416.x.
 D. A. Christakis et al., “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children,” Pediatrics 113, no. 4 (2004): 708 – 713.
 Marie Evans Schmidt et al., “The Effects of Background Television on the Toy Play Behavior of Very Young Children,” Child Development 79, no. 4 (August 2008): 1137–51, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2008.01180.x.
 Weerasak Chonchaiya and Chandhita Pruksananonda, “Television Viewing Associates with Delayed Language Development,” Acta Pædiatrica 97, no. 7 (2008): 977–82, doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x.
 Michael Shayer, Denise Ginsburg, and Robert Coe, “Thirty Years on - a Large Anti-Flynn Effect? The Piagetian Test Volume & Heaviness Norms 1975-2003,” British Journal of Educational Psychology 77, no. 1 (March 2007): 25–41, doi:10.1348/000709906X96987.
 Amy J. Houtrow et al., “Changing Trends of Childhood Disability, 2001–2011,” Pediatrics, August 18, 2014, doi:10.1542/peds.2014-0594.