Most of us know that sitting in front of a TV all day or passing time on our phones probably aren’t the best things for our health. This typically leads to a lifestyle that is sedentary and inactive instead of one that promotes exercise and health. This isn’t only true for us adults, but also for our kids. After all, we were always told as kids to go play outside, get together with a friend, or go play “pretend” with your sibling(s). So, what are the impacts of this sedentary lifestyle in our kids? More importantly, what are the impacts on their brains?
I see kids and parents every day whose lives are impacted by neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADD, ADHD, autism, OCD, oppositional defiance, other behavioral problems and learning disabilities. All too often I see that these kids, more than others, crave screen time, can’t sit still during an appointment, and are constantly reaching and asking for their parents’ phone. While the development and progression of technology has led to many positive impacts in our society, including learning, the negative impacts cannot be ignored.
Let’s take a look at 3 ways that screen time, whether in the form of TV, tablet, or phone, is changing our kids’ brains.
Overstimulates already well-developed areas of the brain
When our brain develops following conception and birth, it undergoes a specific process. The first area of our brain to develop is the very upper part of our brainstem, called the midbrain. This area houses our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as our “flight or fight” system. In short, this helps with our survival. When we are born, that is exactly what we are trying to do. The midbrain controls heart rate and blood pressure, it allows us to process sound, stimulates our vision and ability to see, and begins to develop the ability to move our eyes in certain directions, particularly the ability to see things that are up close.
As further development of our brainstem occurs, communication in the lower areas of our brainstem grow, which gives us sensation to our face (to help us find food as a baby), further changes to our eye movements, development of mechanisms of balance and stability, production of saliva, and maturation of our digestive system. Because the midbrain is the first area to develop, it is the area where connections become most solidified over time and thus don’t typically need further stimulation beyond our day to day life.
But what happens when a kid uses a phone or tablet? Vision is used, sound gets processed, and eye movements are being utilized. And where do kids like to hold these screens? That’s right, close to their face. As a result, the midbrain becomes continuously stimulated, and in many cases, overstimulated. This leads to a brain that is in overdrive and in constant “fight or flight” mode, and like a teeter-totter, lessens the output of the lower parts of the brainstem. At that point, balance and coordination suffer, and digestive difficulties, such as constipation, follow. This is just the first of many issues that can arise.
Creates, or worsens, an underlying brain imbalance
The use of technology has had incredible advances and benefits over the years, but we know there are also many negative effects. While research has shown that screen time may develop some cognitive skills, it has also shown that the negative effects far outweigh the positives. It may seem that letting your kid use your phone keeps them still and holds their attention, but it is one based on short-term attention needing frequent rewards, not the long-term unrewarded attention needed in school and life. According to leading childhood development expert, Dr. Robert Melillo, “Studies show that video games, especially violent ones, stimulate the left brain and inhibit the right frontal lobes which are critical for sustained unrewarded attention, inhibition and social skill development.” The brains of ADD/ADHD, autistic, and other neurodevelopmentally delayed kids show us that there tends to be a right-brain deficit. So, while the use of phones and video games seem to help keep your kid calm and occupied, it’s really worsening an underlying imbalance that is already there.
Lack of movement = lack of cerebellar development
As mentioned previously, we all know that exercise is important for our health, but not many realize the impact that it has on brain health, and in particular, brain development in kids. From development in our mothers’ womb to the process of birth, movement is contributing to the activation of certain reflexes that one day will lead to a baby’s ability to roll over, crawl, and walk. If not stimulated appropriately, this can slow down the neurodevelopmental milestones that need to be reached for the brain to develop appropriately. As a kid hits these milestones, it triggers the next phase of development. If one is missed, it can throw the rest of this process off and extremely hinder its progress.
When we move we stimulate our brain. Movement activates muscles, joints, ligaments, and other tissues in our body. The receptors in these tissues activate specific areas of the brain, in particular the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the central processor that processes all of our sensory inputs, from muscles and joints to vision to our inner ear or vestibular system. It deals with our balance, spatial awareness, and coordination. This area of the brain is critical to develop from a young age. When kids aren’t active and instead are stuck inside playing video games or watching TV, they miss out on the opportunity to better develop their cerebellum, a key area that plays an integral role in neurodevelopment.
So, while mobile devices can serve a lot of great purposes in our world, including the process of learning, let’s guard and protect our kids from the negative effects it can have. Limit screen time, encourage your kids to get outside, to interact with their environment, play with their friends, and use their imagination. Their brains, and yours, will be happy you did.