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Impact of Screen Media on Children

September 27, 2017

Many parents are unaware of the health issues and developmental harm that may be caused by early or excessive exposure to media screens.  These screens include phones, computers, tablets, e-readers, and even smart watches.  Any device that emits electromagnetic radiation can be detrimental to your child’s health and brain development, especially from 0 to five years of age.

The policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends:

  • Avoiding television and other digital media (except video-chatting with family) for children under the age of two years.
  • Limiting children between two and five years of age to no more than one hour of screen media per day.
  • Providing a customized media plan for children over the age of five–limiting the amount, time of day, and type of media, and including preparations for enough sleep and exercise for overall good health.
  • Creating “unplugged” spaces and times in your home where all family members are engaged with each other in meaningful activity or conversation.

Research studies show potentially harmful effects of excessive media exposure including:

  • Obesity
  • Sleeping problems
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Cognitive and language delays
  • Attention disorders
  • Less social and emotional development and interactions
  • Negative impacts on executive function, creative problem-solving skills, and healthy playtime

Sleep Disruption

Exposure to LED-illuminated electronic devices at night such as computers, tablets, phones, TVs and video games suppress melatonin and disrupts the natural sleep cycle. Sleep disruptions are also associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—a brain disorder characterized by patterns of inattention, impulsiveness, and/or hyperactivity that interferes with normal functioning and development.

Sensory Overload

Many children are fascinated by fast-action video games, cartoons, TV shows, and social media. The rapid speed and variety of sounds, images, colors and activities affect two parts of the brain: 1) the visual processing system; and 2) the vestibular (equilibrium) system.

Screen media moves at a much faster rate than normal everyday life. Often this stimulation and rapid-fire activity is more than the brain can process, causing sensory overload for your child. To keep up, some children get into a state of hyper-focus to process the information. When a child is pulled away from a screen device, they can experience “withdrawal” behavior, including hyperactivity.  It’s because their brain–in “super-fast” mode–is searching for something to replace the rapid activity.

Mood Swings

The visual system is also connected to the vestibular system—the sensory system that controls equilibrium, balance, and perception of motion that affects mood. For example, when you soothe a crying baby, movements such as mild rocking, swinging, or bouncing can be calming to the child. It’s the rotational acceleration children find soothing.

When your child is engaged visually and processing information at warp speed, the vestibular system freezes up and your child exhibits a focused “even keel” mood. Once you take away the stimulating media, the vestibular system frees up and tries to adjust to slower, real-life conditions.  This transition often causes mood swings and temper tantrums.  At this point, it’s best to engage your child in physical activity. The motion of jumping, running, or exercising will reset the vestibular system and help calm your child.

Brain Development

Before the age of two, a child’s brain and visual processing system are developing significantly at critical stages. Final development occurs at approximately eight or nine years of age. While the total impact of screen media on brain development is still being pursued, recent research indicates that excessive, rapid visual processing during early stages of development could cause permanent changes in the manner and pace in which the brain processes information.  A child may feel more comfortable in the isolation of fast-action internet activity and less comfortable in the normal pace of interpersonal, social interactions like playing with friends, relationship building, working as a team, goal-setting, and problem solving.

Montessori Method

Like recent research findings, the Montessori educational philosophy supports the belief that children need to experience their natural environment at their own pace to help nurture healthy brain development, cognitive skills, language, and emotional and social well-being.  This involves the loving engagement and interaction of parents and trusted caretakers–allowing the child to discover and learn through individual hands-on and shared experiences.  While today’s electronic media and television offer some beneficial, high-quality educational programming for children, it’s best to keep exposure to screen media at a minimum. Most importantly, it’s wise to monitor and engage in any media viewing with your child to help explain content for better understanding and comprehension. Your thoughtful interaction and guidance will help build the learning experience and bond between you, your child, and the world around them for better health, development, and happiness for years to come.


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