Our lives are pervaded by the presence of screens, so much so, that they’re almost invisible. But just because something is pervasive, doesn’t mean it’s okay. Though arguments and debates about television and screens and the effects on young children still abound, there is enough research to support the idea that screen media may have significant and negative impacts on young children. As parents, we should take note of this if we care about the physical, emotional and cognitive health of our children. Here are some of the things we need to be aware of as parents:

1) There is a correlation between violence on television and violent and antisocial behaviour in children. (Even cartoons with violence are part of the equation).

2) Playing computer games creates addictive behaviour.

3) Spending time in front of any kind of screen impacts slow-wave sleep, interrupting memory consolidation, leading to learning challenges!

Young children, for whom one of the primary ways of learning is by imitation, emulate what they see and are psychologically and physiologically deeply affected by what they watch. Their nervous systems respond to what they see in a very similar way to how they would respond if they were participating in the actual event themselves.

So, violence of any kind on screen influences neural patterning and affects our childrens’ stress responses to the world. Young children are at high risk because they don’t possess the cognitive ability to make the distinction between their reality and the screen reality. There is evidence that watching violence on screen can lead to aggressive behaviour in real life.

Next, children who play computer games (of any kind) show a disruption in slow-wave sleep. They spend less time in slow-wave sleep, which then impacts the prefrontal cortex and results in impeded learning capacity and memory and creates a host of other problems. Children who spend a lot of time in front of screens have reduced sleep efficiency, according to research done at the Institute of Motor Control and Movement Technique at German Sport University in Cologne:1

Excessive television viewing and computer game playing have been associated with many psychiatric symptoms, especially emotional and behavioral symptoms, somatic complaints, attention problems such as hyperactivity, and family interaction problems.

This is food for thought! And then there’s the problem of addiction. Viewing any kind of screen, whether it’s a high-definition television or a seemingly innocuous game on an iPad, measurably impacts children, creating addictive behaviors. Dr. Mary Burke, Associate Clinical Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of San Francisco, writes, “In essence, screen media constitute neurologically potent, arousing input to the developing brain. Unlike conventional toxins, their effects are mediated by sense organs. However, they have demonstrable effects on brain activity visualized on functional MRI (fMRI) and on behavior and function.”

She found that youngsters who spent more than twenty hours a week playing computer games, regardless of the type of game, showed increased glucose metabolism in certain parts of the brain and decreased metabolism in other parts of the brain. “These patterns were similar to those seen in drug addicts,” 2 she writes.

That’s worth a moment’s thought!

Spending lots of time in front of a screen can result in aggressive, antisocial behavior in children. It results in those children being more likely to try to solve social conflict with aggression, and it results in desensitization to violence and to children acquiring “Mean World Syndrome,” a prevalent, fearful response to the world.3

Hours of screen time disrupt slow-wave sleep and impact memory consolidation, creating addictive behaviour in our children as their bodies become dependent on the rushes of dopamine and other chemical changes that follow.

In our busy lives as parents, this is inconvenient information. But it’s information we’ve got to take note of. It might just encourage us to stop believing screens are innocuous. Think of it this way: the benefits of kids in front of screens are few, and they are mostly ours: we get a break. But if our young children spend no time at all in front of any kind of screen, there will be zero negative effects on their physical, emotional and psychological health.

  1. Dworak M, T. Schierl, T. Bruns and H. K. Strüder, Impact of Singular Excessive Computer Game and Television Exposure on Sleep Patterns and Memory Performance of School-aged Children, Institute of Motor Control and Movement Technique, German Sport University Cologne, <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17974734>
  2. Burke, Mary G., ‘The Impact of Screen Media on Children’, Environmental Health Perspective, 18 October 2010
  3. Murray, J. P., ‘The Violent Face of Television: 50 years of research and controversy’, in E. L. Palmer and B. M. Young (eds), The Faces of Televisual Media: Teaching, violence, selling to children, Mahwa, New Jersey, 2003

 By Shelley Davidow is the author of Raising Stress-Proof Kids published by Exisle Publishing at £12.95.