Archive for the ‘Video Game and Electronics Help’ category

Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy

November 11th, 2015

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 “electronics fast” (link is external)—to allow the nervous system to “reset.” (link is external)

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? (link is external) 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 (link is external) 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 (link is external), fractures attention (link is external), and depletes mental reserves. 

Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. (link is external)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. (link is external) 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. (link is external)

Computer, Video Games and Psychosis: Cause for Concern

February 15th, 2011

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: 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 or fill in the form below:

Mental Health Holiday Challenge: No Video Game Gifts

December 16th, 2010


holiday gift

Try a board game instead!

For school age children, the holidays can represent a time to rest, be with family, and play outdoors….or a time to have frenzied video game marathons with the cousins– because, hey, they have new and awesome games!

During the school year, I’ve noticed two blips in the acuity of my younger patients. The first is about six weeks into school, when the honeymoon period wears off and stress is mounting. The second is after the holidays.

At first I wondered why, since a lot of kids do better during summer and other vacation times. Then I realized a typical history during the holidays would be that friends or relatives were visiting, and would often bring over new video games. The kids all gathered in a separate room and would play daily for several hours. The scene?  The adults are happy because the kids are out of their hair, and the kids are having fun with their cousins (or whomever), happily sharing their new electronic toys. The kids are typically on better-than-usual behavior because company’s around, and there is genuine excitement and camaraderie surrounding holiday festivities. This may go on for several days.

It’s all good, right?!   The problem appears when school begins again.   If your child is prone to meltdowns, has trouble organizing themselves, or struggles with focusing on schoolwork, all of these tend to worsen after the holidays if video game sessions are involved. When school resumes, they are thrust back into a situation where higher expectations are placed on them, and this can trigger everything from increased oppositional/defiant behaviors, crying spells, or immediately falling behind in school.    (For information on why this happens, visit the video game page on my website.)

If you notice a pattern like this (or even if you notice any of the above symptoms, in general), challenge yourself and your family to a non-electronic holiday season. Pull out and dust off the board games, or buy a couple new ones as gifts. Card games, like “spoons”, can be played by several kids at once (just make sure they’re similar ages). If you simply tell the kids: “no video games this year”, you’ll be surprised at their creativity. They may grumble, but don’t cave–eventually one child picks up the ball and starts to organize a game or activity. (do a big puzzle, build a snowman, play tag or hide and go seek, have a snowball fight…GO OLD-SCHOOL!)

When I tell parents their child needs a several-week break from all electronic screens, I often hear how the child needs to use the computer for school work. So the holiday season, with no school and no homework, provides an ideal time to give their growing brains a break. It’s impossible to get away from technology, but when opportunities  present themselves to take a clean break, you will never regret seizing them.

Do you have a group game you’d like to tell other parents about?  Tell us the name, objective of the game, and where parents can find more information (if possible).  Indoor and outdoor games are needed.

Case: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Precipitated by Wii Video Game

November 12th, 2010

Recently, a former colleague facebooked me to ask about the potential for wii to cause  obsessive-compulsive symptoms (obsessive thoughts, and/or compulsive behaviors ). Her six year old son had developed some strange behaviors:  he couldn’t stop touching things.  He would touch and rub his hands and arms all over the walls, and had difficulty stopping the behavior, even when he wanted to.  For example, if they walked down a hallway, he’d face the wall while walking and continually slide his arms along the wall in serpentine-like movements.

After reading some of the posts on this website, and knowing that tics and anxiety ran in her family, she initially thought he’d developed a tic disorder.   She didn’t allow other video games, but did allow the wii.  He also didn’t play it very much, and was getting good grades, was well-behaved, played sports, and didn’t have any social problems.  However, she intuitively put together that the wii might be causing the “touching problems”, so she took it away.

“Almost immediately, the (compulsions) went away,” she told me.  “I then decided to replace whatever he was getting from the wii with those same games in real life.  We went bowling, played baseball; I even made up games the kids could play in the backyard.  Since we were doing a lot more activities, he didn’t seem to mind that we took it away.  Plus, it got all the kids to play together instead of fighting…it was fun!”

Bravo, mom!!  This is exactly the intervention I would have suggested  if the child had come to see me.  Frequently, by the time a child makes it into my office, they are having significant problems and the mother is at the end of her rope.    When I suggest to them that they replace the video games with alternate activities, this feels like one more thing on their plate, and they are already overwhelmed.  This mom took that step before she got to that stage. 

So there are really two take home points: 1)although I typically focus on video games and more disruptive behavior/mood problems, here we have an example of a very specific, isolated set of symptoms precipitated by a game that most parents regard as “healthy”.  (for the record, it is healthier than just sitting there, of course, but can still cause all the mood, behavior, sleeping, and concentration problems that other electronic games cause).  2) its a lot easier to change the activity schedule before things get out of control.  It’s very possible that left unchecked, this behavior might have snowballed into a myriad of other symptoms, making it a lot harder for mom to take action and have the energy to organize replacement activities.  .

Why did this happen?  ALL electronic screens, but especially in the form of an interactive game, will increase dopamine levels in the brain.  Many psychiatric disorders are dopamine-related, including ADHD, Obsessive-compulsive disorder, tic disorders, mood disorders, stuttering, and even schizophrenia.  Your child may not have all the symptoms I talk about that can be related to video games, but that doesn’t mean it’s not affecting them.

Follow up to this story:  After a several month break, my friend and her husband decided to reintroduce the wii in very small doses:  30 minutes at a time, once or twice a month, and that’s it.    For now, his touching behavior has not come back.  She knows she will simply pull the wii again if the compulsive touching recurs.  This case demonstrates the power of a good, clean break from all video games (“elimination”) allowing the brain to reset itself, before even considering “moderation”.

Author’s note: Tics and obsessive compulsive disorders are often seen together, implying a shared genetic relationship.  What this mother was calling a “tic”, was actually obsessive compulsive disorder, which is defined by obsessive thoughts and /or compulsive acts that disrupt the life of the individual experiencing them.  It’s interesting that although it was tics that ran in the family, it was OCD that actually presented itself, and that it was only brought out by this one stimulus.  You can see how playing video games may activate a “switch”, bringing out problems that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

/For more help with addressing video game concerns, check out

Do you have a story?  make a comment below to share your experience, ask a question or share a tip.  Thanks for reading!

Victoria L Dunckley, M.D.

Electronics and Sleep Disturbance in Children: Wired and Tired

October 13th, 2010

Harmful biological effects of video games and other electronics are numerous.

There is a growing body of evidence that all electronics can  induce the fight-or-flight state.  Studies show sustained increases in blood pressure and pulse, hours after playing a video game.

These changes can cause sleep issues.   Even if your child sleeps for 8-10 hours, it doesn’t mean their sleep quality is restorative.

Does your child wake up extremely irritable?  Fight going to sleep? Give you hell in the morning getting ready?

These are all signs that the brain’s sleep processes have been disrupted.  A unrested mind has great difficulty learning new information, and retaining the old.

Aside from the fight-or-flight state, there are two other ways video games and electronic devices (with screens) alter sleep.  Both reduce melatonin, the signal that tells your brain to sleep:

  1. The first is due to the unnatural brightness of the screen. Normally, melatonin is released by darkness.  When the eyes experience intense brightness, they channel that bright light directly to the brain, shutting down the sleep switch.  Sleep/wake cycles, or circadian rhythms, are also disrupted.  Studies show that normalizing circadian rhythms stabilize mood.
  2. The second has to do with electromagnetic radiation (EMR), a by-product of anything electronic.  Wireless emits additional EMR.

A recent study showed that employees being exposed to a wireless mast installed in their building developed with dramatic drops in their melatonin and serotonin (another brain chemical related to feeling calm with a sense of well-being), within a few weeks of the wireless mast arriving.

Furthermore, children’s brains are more sensitive to EMR than adults. This is due to their smaller heads, thinner skulls, and greater growth activity.

Take away point: If you’re child is having sleep problems, or seems tired and wired much of the time, simply unplug them, and watch what happens.

For free information on how to “unplug” your child’s brain, visit the video game page. Become informed on the negative effects video games have on your child’s sleep, brain chemistry, and stress response.

Misdiagnosed? Bipolar disorder is all the rage!

September 30th, 2010
Lost and Confused

Feel Lost and Confused? You're not alone!

Recently I gave a presentation to U.C. Irvine Medical Center’s Neuropsychiatry Department, entitled “The Negative Effects of Video Games and Electronics on Mood, Behavior, and Brain Development.   At the last minute, I added in a slide on children being misdiagnosed with mental disorders when the child was really suffering from being over-stimulated by electronics. A good portion of the audience were residents and medical students, and I wanted them to be conscious of this issue when they were assessing a child or adolescent for diagnosis or treatment.

Later that day I added a blurb about children being misdiagnosed on a post introducing a new minicourse (Save Your Child’s Brain) I’d been working on.   Within hours I received an email from an old friend who saw the post on Facebook.  Here’s her message:

COMMENTS: Wow am I glad I read this post on FB.
My 6 year old son loves video games and once he got his Wii he would play for as long as we would let him.  Over the last few months we have been weaning him slowly because we knew that too much is harmful but not knowing where that line is we still allow him about 3-6 hours a week.

I just recently took my 6 year boy to the pediatricians for behavioral issues.  She immediately implied that she thought that he was bipolar and urged me to get him to the psychiatrist and on meds asap. We decided to take it slow and try taking sugar out of his diet and modifying our reaction to his temper tantrums in lieu of rushing him to therapy.
This has really been a timely find and I look forward to
learning more.

I got a chill after reading it.  How many children were being put on psychotropic medication unnecessarily? Her story reaffirmed my conviction that people need information on this topic!!

Here’s another disturbing story: A colleague recently told me her 10 year old son had been given 4 medications in the space of 6 months’ time, and was diagnosed at first as ADHD, then autism, and finally as bipolar.  This was a child with no problems until the 5th grade, and who was now failing all subjects, depressed, and suicidal.   After a little sleuthing, we tied his symptom onset to him getting his first cell phone at the beginning of the school year.    He played games on the phone for several hours every day, and well into the night, to the exclusion of all else.

This mother came to me asking for advice on what she should do next.  It occurred to me how many children I’d seen that were diagnosed as bipolar over the years who eventually stabilized and were taken off medication.  (Bipolar disorder is chronic, lifelong, and progressive).   The fact that they stabilized and continued to be stable off medication meant those children were NOT bipolar, but only looked that way.

Video gaming is one of the environmental factors that can create mood instability, and therefore its influence became even more ominous to me.  Were video games contributing to the shocking rise in psychotropic medication usage?

Due to a serious shortage of child psychiatrists, most children are first seen by their pediatrician- who have about 2 months of training in child psychiatry. Yes, you heard that right–2 months. Where do they get their education?  Well, mostly from drug reps.  Since drug reps are only allowed to talk about what’s FDA approved, and since most of us child psychiatrists use “off-label” medications the vast majority of the time, our methods are very different.

For example, I might use an older, milder, benign, and generic (read:cheap) mood-stabilizer when treating mood problems, especially if it’s unclear why the child is having mood swings.  I normally would not head for the heavy duty drugs first- even though those are the ones that are FDA approved for “bipolar disorder” and “treatment resistant depression”.   Most of those drugs are actually anti-psychotics, and have serious side effects such as weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and movement disorders.  Those drugs have their place, can save lives, and improve a truly bipolar person’s long-term prognosis- (don’t get me wrong, I do use all of them, regularly-) but it is very difficult to diagnose bipolar disorder in a child, especially during a 15 minute visit!! A pediatrician may be more likely to use medications that are FDA-approved for a particular disorder, and to use newer brand-name drugs.  Those drugs may be effective for that disorder, but with major side effects.  What if the diagnosis is wrong?

Ever since  “The Bipolar Child” was published, parents have read this book and think, “Whoa! That’s my child!”  Again, don’t get me wrong– this book is a classic and a gem– but many, if not most, childhood mental disorders have a mood component to them, and many clinicians mistakenly think that severe mood swings and aggression=bipolar disorder.   Children’s threshold for aggression is much lower than ours, because they have poor impulse control.  Furthermore, many disorders, including ADHD and video game addiction, affect the frontal lobe, which is the dashboard for impulse control.  Ergo rage and aggression.  All that rages is not bipolar!

The point is, parents need to take a hard look at environmental influences, in this case video games and electronic screens.  You’ll need to eliminate this factor  before you can really tell what’s going on.  Sure, your child might still have symptoms after you remove these things, but they will be less severe.  Your child’s teacher, doctor, therapist, tutor–everyone!–will have a much clearer picture of what’s going on if you remove these factors.

To read more about the science behind the electronics’ toxicity and how to address it with your child, sign up here to receive a free, 4 day mini course.  If nothing else keep an open mind and just read a little.

Trust me, your child’s brain will thank you:-)

Big thanks to RJS who shared her story with me and allowed me to share it with you.  If you feel this article might be helpful to someone else, please pass it on– you never know whose life it might change!

Video Games and other Devices…They’re Worse Than You Think!!

September 14th, 2010

boy playing video gameDo you have an uneasy feeling that playing video games is bad for your child?  It’s worse than you think!

We all know how pervasive it is in our children’s  lives, but what most people don’t know is the profound negative and lasting effects it has on a growing brain.   This report is based on Dr Dunckley’s experience with over 1000 patients -what symptoms electronic screens cause, how damage occurs, what systems are affected, and what happens when you put your child on an “electronic fast”.   This, combined with compiling the research, makes for a very compelling argument to minimize or even abolish screentime if your child is in trouble.

Sign up here for your FREE Save Your Child’s Brain minicourse.  Arm yourself with the truth about video games, and get your child’s brain on track.

“Many children are misdiagnosed- especially as ‘bipolar’ or ‘ADHD’, and are sometimes put on psychotropic medication unnecessarily, when really the culprit is the brain being in overdrive from electronics.  This is disturbing, and parents should educate themselves on the risks, and consider taking a solid 3 week break if their child is having any problems, ” Dr Dunckley recommends.

But how do you this? First, you, the parent, must be convinced yourself that it’s worth it.  To do that, you must learn what happens in the eyes, brain, and body when games or other electronic stimulation occurs.  Dr. Dunckley’s program explains the behind-the-scenes action in simple terms with lots of examples. Then, to be fully committed, you need to learn about the potential benefits:

  • Better compliance, e.g.  being told to do a chore or get ready for bed.
  • Smoother homework time- more gets done with fewer tears and tantrums.
  • Improved reading and math skills*
  • Improved attention**
  • Better quality sleep, due to both sleep “signals” and body clock being reset.***
  • Better frustration tolerance, fewer meltdowns, less aggression
  • Less irritability, depression, and agitation.

Lastly, you need to know how to implement it.  This is the tough part! Parents get overwhelmed with the just the thought of telling their child.  Dr Dunckley’s program specifically addresses this issue, and provides practical tools to help you and your child succeed.

What the FREE minicourse provides…

This is a preview to Dr Dunckley’s 4 week “Save Your Child’s Brain” teleseminar program, which is being developed to help support parents in what may seem to be a daunting task.   “The hardest part for me as  a clinician is helping the parent who resists.  It’s either because they’re not convinced of the video games’ impact,  because they feel it’s too difficult, if not impossible to implement in today’s world, or because they feel they’d be giving up precious moments of peace and quiet,” Dr Dunckley states.  “The program will address these concerns and helps the parent take it day-by-day, learning as they go.”

To sign up for the free Save Your Child’s Brain minicourse, click here.