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Screentime causes meltdowns

Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy

6 ways electronics use can make children angry, depressed, and unmotivated

pathdoc/fotoliaChildren or teens who are “revved up” and prone to rages or—alternatively—who are depressed and apathetic have become disturbingly commonplace. Chronically irritable children are often in a state of abnormally high arousal, and may seem “wired and tired.” That is, they’re agitated but exhausted. Because chronically high arousal levels impact memory and the ability to relate, these kids are also likely to struggle academically and socially.

At some point, a child with these symptoms may be given a mental-health diagnosis such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, and offered corresponding treatments, including therapy and medication. But often these treatments don’t work very well, and the downward spiral continues.

What’s happening?

Both parents and clinicians may be “barking up the wrong tree.” That is, they’re trying to treat what looks like a textbook case of mental disorder, but failing to rule out and address the most common environmental cause of such symptoms—everyday use of electronics. Time and again, I’ve realized that regardless of whether there exists any “true” underlying diagnoses, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an “electronic fast” —to allow the nervous system to “reset.” 

If done correctly, this intervention can produce deeper sleep, a brighter and more even mood, better focus and organization, and an increase in physical activity. The ability to tolerate stress improves, so meltdowns diminish in both frequency and severity. The child begins to enjoy the things they used to, is more drawn to nature, and imaginary or creative play returns. In teens and young adults, an increase in self-directed behavior is observed—the exact opposite of apathy and hopelessness.

It’s a beautiful thing.

At the same time, the electronic fast reduces or eliminates the need for medication while rendering other treatments more effective. Improved sleep, more exercise, and more face-to-face contact with others compound the benefits—an upward spiral! After the fast, once the brain is reset, the parent can carefully determine how much if any electronics use the child can tolerate without symptoms returning.

Restricting electronics may not solve everything, but it’s often the missing link in treatment when kids are stuck.  

But why is the electronic fast intervention so effective? Because it reverses much of the physiological dysfunction produced by daily screen time.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Also, many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time—Internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming—isn’t harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because it’s more likely to cause hyperarousal and compulsive use.

Here’s a look at six physiological mechanisms that explain electronics’ tendency to produce mood disturbance:

1. Screen time disrupts sleep and desynchronizes the body clock (link is external).

Because light from screen devices mimics daytime, it suppresses melatonin, a sleep signal released by darkness. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize the body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. Plus, high arousal doesn’t permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.

2. Screen time desensitizes the brain’s reward system.

Many children are “hooked” on electronics, and in fact gaming releases so much dopamine—the “feel-good” chemical—that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine use. But when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so needless to say, even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.

3. Screen time produces “light-at-night.”

Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. In fact, animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal isn’t looking at the screen. Sometimes parents are reluctant to restrict electronics use in a child’s bedroom because they worry the child will enter a state of despair—but in fact removing light-at-night is protective.

4. Screen time induces stress reactions.

Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Indeed, cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression—creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyperarousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.

5. Screen time overloads the sensory system, fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. 

Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.

Chubykin Arkady/Shutterstock
Source: Chubykin Arkady/Shutterstock

6. Screen-time reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.”

Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. Thus, time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers.

In today’s world, it may seem crazy to restrict electronics so drastically. But when kids are struggling, we’re not doing them any favors by leaving electronics in place and hoping they can wind down by using electronics in “moderation.” It just doesn’t work. In contrast, by allowing the nervous system to return to a more natural state with a strict fast, we can take the first step in helping a child become calmer, stronger, and happier.

For more on this topic, check out my new book, Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time. 

Centre for Life Los Angeles Office

New Office Location in Los Angeles!

I’m excited to announce I’m joining forces with an alternative healing center called the Centre for Life, located in Los Angeles in the Marina Del Rey area.  The new office is conveniently located near West LA, Venice, Culver City, and Santa Monica just off the 90W from the 405 freeway.

The Centre was opened by homeopath Avghi Constantinides and is serviced by acupuncturists, psychiatrists, a pediatrician, naturopaths, and hypnotherapists.  To better serve my patients with a holistic approach, I’ve begun preparing for an additional board specialty in integrative medicine (American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine).  Working closely with other alternative health practitioners allows me to both  further my education and refer patients for consultation in a convenient manner.

Click here for more information on the Centre for Life.

Centre for Life Los Angeles Office
Centre for Life building

New Services: Along with micronutrient testing, I’ll now be offering neurotransmitter testing, food and chemical sensitivity testing, and hormonal and metabolic panels.  These tests help individualize supplement regimens, optimize treatment, and minimize psychotropic medication use. 

overstimulated brain

Computer, Video Games and Psychosis: Cause for Concern

overstimulated brain“I hear voices at night, and sometimes I think someone’s outside my window,” the 19-year-old young man informed me.  “I know no one’s really there, but it’s still scary.”

In my practice in the past six months, no less than 5 youths have reported psychotic symptoms that were attributed to, or exacerbated by, electronic screens.    As per my protocol, I always get an “e-screen” history:

  • video games
  • computer/internet use
  • cell phone use (talking, texting, streaming, and internet).

Not surprisingly, all five of these patients, ranging from 15-22 years old, were “plugged in” for six or more hours each day.  Three were female and two male.  After discussing e-screens’ toxic influence on the brain, I recommended to each of these patients that they forego all electronic screens for at least 4 weeks.

The three females all decided to go “cold turkey ” and gave up their games, laptops, and phones.  All three saw their symptoms resolve completely within a month.  Of the two males, one cut down use significantly and his hallucinations disappeared; his paranoia remained but was less severe and caused less dysfunction.   The other male turned out to be severely addicted to the internet and video games and flat out refused to change his habits at all (a subject for another article entirely!  Needless to say he continues to suffer from psychosis).

Importantly, the therapeutic effects were achieved without using medication! This is a big deal, because medications used to treat psychotic symptoms are heavy duty, and have serious side effects, such as weight gain, hormone dysfunction, and movement disorders.

Electronic screens, particularly interactive ones (as opposed to passive ones, like television), increase dopamine in the reward center of the brain.  This effect has been demonstrated by brain scan (Koepp, 1998: http://www.nrc-iol.org/cores/mialab/fijc/Files/2002/120402_Koepp_Nature_1998.pdfDopamine is the “feel good” chemical, but is also related to stress, addiction, anxiety, mood, and attention.   Perhaps more disturbing, dopamine excess in certain parts of the brain can lead to psychotic symptoms-voices, delusions, paranoia, or confusion.

Psychosis is defined by abnormal thinking. This can involve thought content, such as hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia, or thought process (highly disorganized thinking, or feeling thoughts are “blocked”).   It is typically attributed to the severely mentally ill, like schizophrenics, but can also be seen in “normal” people under extreme stress.  Children in particular are more likely to hallucinate when traumatized, sleep-deprived, or over-stimulated.   E-screens cause or mimic all three of these states!

Take home point: Children, teens, and young adults who have unexplained hallucinations or delusions should have ALL electronic screens removed for at least 3 weeks, as part of the diagnostic process.  This includes cell phones, as texting, media viewing, and internet use can quickly rack up hours.  Virtually all teens and many young adults do not yet have the impulse control to moderate their own usage, and this is why the parent must physically remove these devices. While this may seem extreme, drastic times cause for drastic measures.   Psychosis–and treatment thereof–is serious and has long-lasting effects.

As psychiatric disorders in young people continue to explode, and evidence mounts about the toxic effects of e-screens on the developing brain, parents and clinicians would be prudent to remove this offending environmental trigger from the child’s life, as part of the diagnosis and as one “arm” of the treatment plan.

When you start to feel conflicted about removing screens-they are so ingrained in our lives, after all-this is what I tell my patients and their parents: “You will never regret removing video games and computer use, but you may sorely regret leaving them in place. “

For more information on video games and a FREE mini course, visit www.drdunckley.com/videogames or fill in the form below:

holiday gift

Mental Health Holiday Challenge: No Video Game Gifts

Try going "old school" this holiday season with no electronics or video games...it may help when your child starts school in January!

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