Jennifer Wickham, L.P.C.
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In our increasingly digitalized world, where most of us, and even our children, own electronic devices with screens, many parents and adults worry about the impact of screen use for themselves and their children.
There is much controversy over the effects of screen use and exposure to violence in video games. This year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) rolled back some of the strict guidelines for screen time, citing that not all time children spend in front of digital devices is negative. The AAP sought to strike a balance between the increasing dependence on technology and what is healthy for young, developing minds.
Yet, a reason for concern and thoughtful monitoring of screen use remains. A 2014 study conducted by Zhejiang Normal University in China found that young adults who were addicted to online gaming showed lower volumes of gray and white brain matter than young adults in the control group who were not addicted to online gaming. Lower volumes of gray and white matter in some areas of the brain translates to increased difficulties with decision-making, impulse control and emotion regulation.
In addition, recent studies have found that excessive video game and screen time interferes with sleep, mood and social learning in children and adolescents.
Is screen time damaging?
We’re learning through research that our brains, body and relationships can be damaged while on video games and screens. The action and interaction in video games mimics sensory input that our brains associate with danger. It’s important to understand that our brains react to sensory input whether it’s real or perceived. How many of us have cried, laughed or been startled in response to the visual, auditory and emotional circumstances of a movie, whether the situation is a gripping drama, entertaining comedy or a horror? The same can be said for the feeling and experience of a car accident or being the victim of a criminal act — our brains perceive the sensory input and, consequently, our bodies react.
Victoria Dunckley, M.D., in her article “This is Your Child's Brain on Video Games,” reports excessive video game use can lead to children’s brains being revved up in a constant state of hyperarousal, where the fight-flight response that perceives danger is too often triggered by exposure to intense stimulation and violence in a video game. This state of hyperarousal looks different for each individual and can include difficulties with paying attention, managing emotions, controlling impulses, following directions and tolerating frustration. Deficits in expression of compassion, creativity and interest in learning also can be impacted. For some, the release of the stress hormone cortisol, associated with the fight-flight response, can lead to chronic stress, which has its own symptoms, such as decreased immune function, irritability, depression and unstable blood sugar levels. One consequence is many young children develop a craving for sweets and will snack on them while playing video games. Compounded with the sedentary nature of the activity of video games, healthy diet and weight are negatively affected.
How can gaming become an addiction?
Hyperarousal also can be triggered by a release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that’s released in the brain when we experience success or achievement. It’s the same dopamine release process that triggers addiction to video games, screens and chemicals, such as alcohol.
An addiction is defined as an individual’s inability to control use of a substance or behavior in spite of negative consequences and functional impairment in life. Many children and adults who engage in screen/video game use to the exclusion of other normal activities fall dangerously close to meeting this definition.
Dopamine is powerful. It helps sustain interest and attention, which is why it can be so hard for anyone to tear themselves away from a video game or interesting post on Facebook. It’s self-reinforcing — the more interest we experience, the more dopamine is released, and the more attention we direct to the task at hand. These biological processes can lead to long-term or permanent changes in the brain that require extensive behavioral/medical treatment to reverse.
What can we do?
- Consult guidelines for screen/video game use, such as those suggested by the AAP or the American Psychological Association.
- Model healthy use of screens and video games.
- Monitor your children’s and your quality of screen time. Educational programs can be beneficial and increase interest in learning.
- Develop a good balance of screen/video game use and activities that require in-person social interactions, such as family activities, sports, music education and volunteering in the community.
- Observe children for behavioral and mood changes associated with screen/video game use and make appropriate adjustments.
- Create structured times free of screen/video game use, such as during mealtimes, in the mornings and before bedtime.
New technology for productivity, education and entertainment is exciting and has improved our quality of life. But, as with most activities in life, moderation is key.
If you’re concerned about a child or loved one’s use of screen/video game time, consulting a behavioral or addictions specialist can help to determine treatment options.