Screens Negatively Impacting Kids’ Brains, Fueling ADHD Epidemic: Experts

There is more and more research suggesting that too much screen time is impacting kids’ brain development. I’m not against all screen time but we must create media-safe homes that monitor the amount of screen time for kids, especially young kids.

Screens Negatively Impacting Kids’ Brains Fueling ADHD Epidemic: Experts

A mental health storm is brewing among the United States’ youth, with attention disorders reaching crisis levels. But a growing chorus of experts says part of the solution could be simple: Limit screen time.

New research links excessive technology use to rising attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) rates.

Screen: ‘Main Culprit’ Behind ADHD

“The developing mind is designed to attach to the most relevant stimuli,” Roger McFillin, a clinical psychologist board-certified in behavioral and cognitive psychology, told The Epoch Times.

Screens overly stimulate neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which are important for mental health, he added, noting that dysregulation of these pathways can lead to disorders such as ADHD and developmental delays.

In a brand-new 2023 study, researchers performed one of the most comprehensive investigations into the effect of screen time on young children. The study included more than 7,000 children aged between 2 and 4. The authors noted that the results suggest a dose-response association between longer screen time at age 1 and developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 and 4. This illustrates the delayed ramifications of screens’ effect on children’s development.

Screen time is “the main culprit” behind the skyrocketing rates of ADHD, according to Dr. Victoria Dunckley, a child psychiatrist and expert on the effects of screen time on children’s nervous systems.

2019 study published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education tested the hypothesis that screen time shortened young children’s attention spans. Researchers separated 30 preschool-aged kids into two groups: One group watched stories unfold on a screen, and the other had the same stories read aloud.

After six weeks, electroencephalogram scans showed that the screen-exposed kids had brain patterns similar to those with ADHD.

In a study published in Pediatrics, researchers found that early screen exposure resulted in attention problems down the road. The study included 1,278 1-year-olds and 1,345 3-year-olds. Following the kids over six years, researchers observed that 10 percent had attentional problems at age 7. Hours of television viewed per day at ages 1 and 3 were associated with attentional problems at 7 years old.

Additionally, in a 2023 meta-analysis reviewing nine studies of a total of more than 81,000 kids, researchers found that excessive screen exposure may significantly contribute to the development of ADHD in children. “Therefore,” the authors wrote, “it is necessary to reduce screen time per day in children to prevent the occurrence of ADHD.”

Brains ‘Short-Circuited’ By Screens

Screen time can negatively affect language development, visual processing, memory, and social cognition.

Interactive screen time, which includes social media and games on a tablet or phone, is particularly stimulating to the brain, Dr. Dunckley told The Epoch Times.

“It repeatedly puts the nervous system into a state of fight or flight without the benefit of discharging that energy,” she said. When hyper-arousal happens on a regular basis, the brain’s frontal lobe is effectively “short-circuited.”

When this happens to the frontal lobe, which controls emotion, motivation, and attention, kids may become impulsive, restless, aggressive, or even depressed.

The research on the effect of interactive screens on young children’s brains is limited. However, some studies suggest that the content form matters more than the screen time itself. “Weak narrative, fast pace and editing, complex stimuli, or stimuli too different from reality, can make it difficult for the child to extract or generalize information,” one review notes.

Too Quick to Medicate?

The link between screens and poor mental health has become increasingly apparent over the past decade. Most treatment focuses on pharmaceuticals. In 2021, 8 percent of U.S. children ages 5 to 17 were prescribed medications for mental health issues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a further increase among “almost all psychiatric disorders across the board, including ADHD,” according to Dr. Stephen Farone, a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Physiology and vice chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University.
Amphetamine formulations are the most commonly prescribed ADHD stimulants in North America. Notably, amphetamines are also among the most abused prescription medications, according to a report in Molecular Psychiatry.
Early amphetamine treatment has been linked to the retardation of height and weight growth in some children. However, experts in children’s mental health believe the benefits of these medications outweigh the potential risk of growth issues.

For many conditions, lifestyle changes such as reducing screen time could prompt improvement, Mr. McFillin said.

For example, avoid “babysitter” screen time for young children. A recent study published in BMC Public Health analyzed toddlers’ screen time. Children were nearly nine times more likely to overuse screens when watching alone versus with a parent or other kids, and they had four times higher odds of excessive use if parents watched excessively.

“I often get referred kids who have complex histories and/or treatment-resistant, and the first thing I start with is a screen fast,” Dr. Dunckley said. This critical first step frequently leads to better academic performance, mood, sleep, and sociability—even if it doesn’t solve the problem entirely.

“Despite the fact that we’re immersed in a digital culture, we need to work with brain physiology and developmental needs, not against it,” Dr. Dunckley said.

This article first appeared here.

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Vance Voetberg

Vance Voetberg is a journalist for The Epoch Times based in the Pacific Northwest. He holds a B.S. in journalism and aims to present truthful, inspiring health-related news. He is the founder of the nutrition blog “Running On Butter.”

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