Screen Addiction Affects Physical and Mental Health

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Just like tobacco and alcohol use, screen time can become an addiction that can damage your health and relationships if it’s not kept it check.

“Screen addiction is a group of behaviors that are negative, some negative outcomes, that can happen when we use too much technology during our day,” says Kathryn Lorenz, MD, of Upper Valley Family Medicine, part of Premier Physician Network. “Prolonged use of watching TV, video games, scrolling through social media – all of that use acts like a digital drug for our brain.”

Screen use releases dopamine in the brain, which can negatively affect impulse control. Dr. Lorenz says studies have shown screen time affects the frontal cortex of the brain, similar to the effect of cocaine.

Similar to drugs, screen time sets off a pleasure/reward cycle that can have a negative impact of your life.

Screen Time and Kids

Screen time recommendations for children have shifted over the years. The most recent recommendations set these limits:

  • Up to 6 months old: no screen time
  • 6 months to 2 years old: use screen time only for interactive social play with an adult or to video chat with loved ones
  • 2 to 5 years old: no more than one hour of screen time
  • School-aged kids: no set time limit, but parents should limit social media use and gaming

“We want to still encourage an hour a day at least of physical activity,” Dr. Lorenz says. She recommends face-to-face play with other kids, reading books, playing non-video games, playing with toys, and learning life skills, like cooking with parents – all without screens.

“If our children are relying on screens for their entertainment, that could be a warning sign that they’re addicted to screens,” Dr. Lorenz says. “If there’s a struggle over stopping screen use, that’s usually a warning sign that they’re fairly addicted to it and their brains are really craving it.” Another concern, she says, is when children routinely choose screens over books, non-video games, and toys that they used to play with.

Increased aggressive behavior can also be a sign of screen time addiction in kids, especially in children younger than 6 who can’t yet tell the difference between reality and what’s virtual.

Set a Good Example

Part of limiting kids’ screen time is setting a good example as a parent.

Dr. Lorenz recommends monitoring and limiting your own screen usage. She adds, “Don't have TV on in the background, behind all of our activities. If I do that my kids are staring off between questions of their homework. So, model turning the TV off.”

Long-term Effects

In children, effects of screen addiction may include:

  • Speech delay
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Difficulty with problem-solving and creative thinking
  • Cyber bullying and exposure to predators
  • Body weight issues and poor bone health due to lack of physical activity, which later in life can add up to heart disease and other health conditions
  • Depression and anxiety

Being Involved in Your Kids’ Screen Time

Lorenz recommends that parents set screen time limits with their kids. And she advises staying involved in your kids’ screen use. This gives you the opportunity to teach what is appropriate and what to avoid.

“We can certainly play video games with our kids so we know what's actually in the content of them, because not all of the ratings equate to what we think our kids should really be viewing.”

She says, “Interacting with your kids (including during screen time) is going to make them more likely to talk to you, to tell you what they've learned from the internet or from their games.”

To learn more about avoiding screen addiction, talk to your doctor or health care provider or search for a provider.

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