How much screen time is too much for kids?
Long before addiction sets in, a child's sensitive nervous system can become overstimulated and hyperaroused from moderate but regular amounts of screen time. This causes the brain to be in a state of chronic stress and effectively short circuits the frontal lobe, creating a host of symptoms that mimic or exacerbate mental health, learning, and behavioral disorders.
The first step in addressing this state — what I call Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) — is recognizing the signs.
This is important because traditionally when experts discuss red flags for problematic screen time, they focus on addictive behaviors, many of which are readily apparent. In contrast, this quiz is designed to help parents see the not-so-obvious ways in which screen time might be impacting a child's or teen's behavior in a negative way.
Place a checkmark next to each question that applies to your child.
- Does your child seem revved up much of the time?
- Does your child have meltdowns over minor frustrations?
- Does your child have full-blown rages?
- Has your child become increasingly oppositional, defiant, or disorganized?
- Does your child become irritable when told it’s time to stop playing video games or to get off the computer?
- Do you ever notice your child’s pupils are dilated after using electronics?
- Does your child have a hard time making eye contact after screen time or in general?
- Would you describe your child as being attracted to screens “like a moth to a flame”?
- Do you ever feel your child is not as happy as he or she should be or is not enjoying activities as much as he or she used to?
- Does your child have trouble making or keeping friends because of immature behavior?
- Do you worry that your child’s interests have narrowed recently, or that interests mostly revolve around screens? Do you feel his or her thirst for knowledge and natural curiosity has been dampened?
- Are your child’s grades falling, or is he or she not performing academically up to his or her potential — and no one is certain why?
- Have teachers, pediatricians, or therapists suggested your child might have bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, an anxiety disorder, or even psychosis, and there’s no family history of the disorder?
- Have multiple practitioners given your child differing or conflicting diagnoses? Have you been told your child needs medication, but this doesn’t feel right to you?
- Does your child have a preexisting condition, like autism or ADHD, whose symptoms seem to get worse after screen time?
- Does your child seem “wired and tired” — exhausted but can’t sleep, or sleeps but doesn’t feel rested?
- Does your child seem unmotivated and have poor attention to detail?
- Would you describe your child as being stressed, despite few identifiable stressors?
- Is your child receiving services in school that don’t seem to be helping?
- Do you and your child argue over screens (limits, timing, content, activities, getting a new device, etc.) on a regular basis?
- Does your child lie about screen use, “cheat” when on restriction, or take their device to bed with them?
- Is your child a “sore loser” or hyper-competitive when playing games or sports, to the point where it affects peer relationships or enjoyment of the activity itself?
- Does your child prefer socializing online over face-to-face interactions?
- Do you avoid setting screen time limits because you fear your child’s reaction, you’re too exhausted, or because you’d feel guilty doing so?
- Do you avoid spending time with your child because you predict it won’t be enjoyable or because you harbor negative feelings toward your child?
Overall points: Count the number of checked boxes. The more questions that resonate with your family’s situation the higher the likelihood that screen time is affecting your child’s nervous system—ESS. At the same time, a higher score reflects risk for tech addiction—even if the amount of screen time is “average” or even less than your child’s peers.
1-5 points: Some risk for ESS. Your child has some difficulties whose primary underlying cause may or may not be related to screen use. However, all mental health, learning and behavior issues will improve when screen time is properly addressed. This is similar to how restoring sleep tends to have a panacea-like effect on mental conditions across the board.
5-12 points: Moderate risk for ESS. Your child has some significant difficulties, likely in more than one area (school, home or in relationships). There’s a good chance that your child may remain “stuck” or see limited improvements if ESS and screen time are not addressed. On the other hand, if you’re catching ESS early and aren’t too stressed yourself, now would a good time to nip it in the bud.
13 or more: High risk for ESS. If you’ve answered “yes” to more than half the questions above, it is highly likely your child has Electronic Screen Syndrome and may also be at risk for technology addiction. Many, many families fall into this category. You may feel you’re in crisis mode, all the time. Fear not—being in this state can be highly motivating, and you’re likely to see more dramatic and even “life-changing” benefits when ESS is reversed.
Specific problematic areas: In contrast to the overall score, this section can help flesh out specific challenges your child may be experiencing. In turn, this can help you choose areas in which to track progress.
Hyperarousal/overstimulation: Virtually all these questions relate directly or indirectly to hyperarousal, but in regards to physiological arousal look to items 1-7, 10, 16-18, and 22.
Mood: Items 9, 11, 13, 17 and 22.
Cognition/focus: Items 4, 11-15, 17 and 19.
Behavior/social skills: Items 4, 7, 10, 20, 22 and 23.
Attachment: Items 7, 9, 10, 20, 21, 24 and 25.
Addiction: Items 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 20, and 21, 23 and 24.
Misdiagnosis: Items 12-15, and 19. Since ESS can mimic or exacerbate psychiatric disorders, its presence is commonly missed. The presence of ESS doesn’t rule out other underlying conditions, but it will virtually always make other issues worse. Further, when ESS is left untreated the underlying disorders become harder (if not impossible) to address.
Electronic Screen Syndrome
In general, ESS is marked by high levels of arousal (hyperarousal, or being “revved up”) and an inability to regulate emotions and stress levels (dysregulation).
Symptoms vary and can mimic virtually any psychiatric or learning disorder and many neurological disorders. However, a classic presentation of ESS is irritable mood, poor focus or disorganization, low frustration tolerance, and problematic behaviors such as argumentativeness or poor eye contact. Depressed or anxious mood is also common.
You might notice that the quiz questions above cover a wide variety of dysfunction, but they all represent scenarios that can occur when a child starts operating from a more primitive part of the brain—which is what happens when children get more screen time than the nervous system can handle.
The presence of ESS is good news—because whenever we can identify a culprit, we can point to an avenue of treatment. (Compare this to going in circles because you don’t know what’s going on and you’re wasting time/energy/money trying to figure it all out.)
Importantly, it doesn’t matter if there are underlying diagnoses or stressors contributing to the child’s symptoms; indeed these factors only make the child more vulnerable to overstimulation. And though screens may seem so ubiquitous that they’re impossible to control, the truth is that with education, support, and a concrete plan, parents can take back control, turn ESS around, and boost quality of life for not just your child but the entire family.
The keys to success lie in grasping the physiology and dynamics behind screens and the nervous system as well as understanding how to systematically reset and resynchronize a child’s brain. This is achieved with a strict, extended electronic fast (aka a tech fast or screen fast) of at least three weeks’ (sometimes longer) duration.
Though the thought of this might seem overwhelming, most parents find the fast easier than they imagined it would be. Once the child’s nervous system is reset to its natural baseline, parents can either continue being (mostly) screen-free, or they can methodically determine how much screen time the child can tolerate without triggering symptoms or dysfunction.
Why not just cut back, you ask? Because screen exposure has potent biological effects including overactivation of the brain’s reward pathways, desynchronization of the body clock, sensory overload, release of stress hormones, and electrical excitability. These systems tend to stay in a disorganized state without complete removal of the offending agents. Removing screen stimulation allows the brain to get deep rest, resynchronize the clock, rebalance brain chemistry and hormones, quiet overactive pathways, and restore mental energy.
In short, recognizing and addressing overstimulation and ESS from screen time can have a profound impact on mood, focus, and behavior in children, teens—and even young adults—in a matter of weeks, while restoring peace and harmony in the home.