Screen time can create brain changes in kid; how can you get them to unplug?

IVORYTON -- On a beautiful spring day in Ivoryton, Jim Babek greets his 11-year-old son Aidan as he gets off the bus.

Jim is reminded some things are the same as they were when he was growing up, like playing a fun game of catch, or catching up about the school day. But there are many things that aren't.

“Cell phones, iPods, iPads, Xbox," said Jim. “These kids grew up with it, this is what they know.”

It brings an entire other set of challenges facing parents these days.

“We call that generation, Generation D,” said West Hartford Psychiatrist Dr. David Greenfield of Generation Digital.

"It's not necessarily that the screens are bad, or that the internet is necessarily bad,” Dr. Greenfield said, "It's just very powerful. It has very strong psychoactive properties and it can alter mood and consciousness.”

Doctor Greenfield founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, which treats kids as well as adults.

He was one of the first in his field to notice and document the intoxicating elements of the internet back in the 1990's.

“The internet is the world's largest slot machine, the smart phone is the world's smallest slot machine,” said Dr. Greenfield, "you don't know what you're going to get, you don't know how good it's going to be."

Dr. Greenfield said there is a fair amount of preliminary data that there are physiological white and gray matter changes in brain development if children are exposed to too much screen time.

One of the physiological changes he names, is called Reward Deficiency Syndrome.

"The internet naturally elevates dopamine, and dopamine is a pleasure neurochemical,” Dr. Greenfield explained. “The problem is that you get used to those high levels of dopamine and so kids become used to a high level of stimulation and pleasure.”

Dr. Greenfield goes on to explain that’s why kids who spend large amounts of time on screens, are bored if they don’t have a screen in front of them.

"Real time living is flat,” he said.

So what is the definition of “screen time”?

Doctor Greenfield said it refers to any device that can access the internet, where stimulating content like YouTube and social media are merely a tap away.

"It gives notifications, so every time you get a little buzz or a ding, or a bell it tells you there's a reward waiting,” said Dr. Greenfield. "The elevation in dopamine to anticipated reward is twice as high as the actual reward itself.”

Parents, before you freak out, there is the good news.

"Children's brains are also highly flexible and highly neuroplastic,” explained Dr. Greenfield. "So if there is shifts and structural changes, often those can be recovered and redeveloped.”

Not to mention Dr. Greenfield said only two to six percent of the population actually develops an internet or technology addiction, but that doesn’t mean you can’t overuse the internet. It’s all about moderation and regulation.

Here's some tips:

  • Don't give your kids unlimited access to the internet.
  • Dr. Greenfield recommends one to two hours of screen time every day.
  • Don't put digital devices in a child's bedroom at night.

"One of the things we see with high screen use among children and adolescents is a lack of sleep,” said Dr. Greenfield.

There's also that moment when your child has a meltdown in public.

"It is not a good idea to hand your kids a screen to calm them down or to occupy them,” said Dr. Greenfield, “because if you do that, overall what you're doing is you're teaching their brain to use the screen as a drug.”

“It's good and it's bad,” said Babek, “It's bad if you don't control it and monitor what they watch, but then it's good because they can learn so much.”

So experts say try to reinforce healthy habits.

As a parent, put down your screen for a bit and throw your efforts into actual face time.

If you do see your child's academic performance decline, changes in social habits, or a loss of interest in activities they enjoyed before, you may want to seek advice from a medical professional.

For more tips from Dr. Greenfield visit Virtual Addiction or Dr. Greenfields website.