Need an Expert? Kids and screen time

Posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Child looking at an iPad

Members of the media may directly contact the following expert:

Dr. Michael Cheng (English and French)

Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, and Staff Psychiatrist, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO).

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant children are even more engrossed in screens, a reality with serious consequences on youth mental health and wellness, according to Dr. Cheng.  

How bad has our reliance on screens become?
“As a society, we’re more addicted to our screens than cocaine, and it’s having a major effect on our kids.

“Human beings are wired to seek out dopamine and adrenaline, which we used to get this through daily activities such as hunting, gathering, and farming.  Face-to-face contact with other humans would also give our brains a dose of oxytocin. Unfortunately, screens hack our brains by giving us easy dopamine/adrenaline. Why spend time with our friends and family outside when you can get that dopamine/adrenaline by sitting in front of a screen? Just like the lab rat that would prefer to press the cocaine lever than eat, we have become the lab rat that prefers to sit in front of our screens than do what we really need.

“Studies have shown an association between increased screen time and mental health problems. One of the main interventions that helps depressed children/youth get better is to reduce excessive screen time and reconnect them with people and activities that give purpose, meaning, belonging and hope.”

What is the effect of too much screen time on children?
“Unhealthy technology use can damage your child’s mental health, so parents need to know how to ensure their kids are using technology in a healthy way.

“Technology and kids is a case of the ‘The Good, the Bad, the Ugly and the Really Ugly’: for some kids, technology can be positive as it allows them to connect with healthy peers so they feel less alone. Or if they have good limits, they can use it to learn. But most kids struggle with excessive technology use and unhealthy screen use is like a deal with the devil — technology is designed to be addictive.”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted this?
“Before the pandemic, there was much more emphasis on simply getting kids (and adults) to put down their devices and get outside, or to spend face-to-face time with each other. Now, many of us are spending increased time in front of screens because of school or work being virtual. 

“We have to accept there is going to be more screen time but we must make it healthier by ensuring a good physical set up and following the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break where you look at least 20-feet away (ideally out a window or outside).

“Parents can try to encourage more positive use of screen time. Learn how to use the automated parental controls such as Apple’s Screen Time or Android’s Digital Wellbeing and parental controls. Promote and encourage educational apps so if your kids using their devices, at least its educational. Teach them healthier ways to use social media.  Don’t leave kids to their own devices!”


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