You don’t have to go very far to find a kid or teen with their face buried in a cell phone or tablet. Experts are warning parents the abundance of screens in today’s society is harming the physical and emotional wellbeing of the children using these devices the most. There’s even a term for it: screen addiction aka digital separation anxiety.
Overexposure to digital media is thought to be responsible for everything from damaged eyesight to decreased social skills in neurotypical children, but doctors are now warning that long term exposure could also be drastically altering the way children’s brains develop.
What is Digital Separation Anxiety
According to Dr. Jenny Yip, PsyD, ABPP, and a founding member of the Little Thinkers Center, digital separation anxiety stems from the same causes as traditional addiction and withdrawal symptoms. She tells Parentology “screen addiction,” which isn’t yet considered a diagnosable condition, can present as a compulsive need for a habit-forming substance or behavior that brings about harmful results.
In this case, the habit-forming substance is digital in nature — she cites things like social media, texting, emails, and gaming among them — and it is something that is affecting both kids and their parents alike.
Some of the signs and symptoms include:
- Using digital media to escape from discomfort or improve your mood.
- Isolation or withdrawal from connecting with friends and family in person.
- Failed attempts at reducing the use of digital media.
There are physical symptoms as well. Children can experience headaches and even carpal tunnel from too much time on tablets and cell phones.
You May Already See the Signs in Your Child
If you have ever been alarmed by the way your child acts when you try and take their screens away, or watched them have a physical or emotional reaction to too much time in front of a screen, your child is probably already experiencing the symptoms of digital separation anxiety.
“This generation is using screens more than any other generation, so physical symptoms present much earlier,” Yip says. That means smaller kids may throw tantrums when you turn off the television, or older ones may fight back or argue when you tell them it’s time to put down their phone for the night.
This happens because cell phones, tablets, and the very media you engage with while using them, are all designed to be addictive. According to Yip this is the basis of the business model of most web sites both you and your child frequent. They make money based on the number of clicks they get, so they’re designed to keep users clicking, which makes it even harder to put them down and walk away.
What Too Much Screen Time Can do to Developing Brains
Spending too much time in front of a screen has the potential to make fundamental changes to your child’s developing brain. “People who are addicted to screens have less gray matter in their frontal lobe,” Yip says.
While that news may sound alarming, she says it’s not the final word on the matter, since the human brain is ever-adaptable. You can fix some of the damage done to brain development by simply removing the use of screens. It’s the emotional reaction with which parents may struggle.
“Behavior changes are harder to fix than cognitive problems,” Yip says. She suggests parents get their kids off of their screens more frequently and beginning at an earlier age.
We Don’t Know Enough About the Long-term Effects… Yet
Yip explains since screen time addiction didn’t really arise until the early 2000s when cell phones became popular, the amount of information we have about what the long-term effects are limited.
One thing we know for sure, according to Yip, is we should be limiting exposure to screen time as much as possible. She recommends keeping your children off of unlimited data plans and imposing strict rules about how and when screens can be used at home.
As for your younger children, Yip says to limit their screen time to no more than 30 minutes to an hour a day. Setting limits early can help you in the long run.