Reclaiming a child’s brain from video games

Reset Your Child's Brain book coverMany parents sense that media use affects their children in vague, unseen ways. They’re not imagining it. I have an excellent book to recommend if you’d like to understand more about the way children’s brains–and therefore all aspects of daily function–are stressed by video games. Three years ago I cited a piece by child and adolescent psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley about the effects on the nervous system of interactive screen time. Dr. Dunckley outlined a syndrome of dysregulated mood, attention, executive function, and arousal that develops in response to exposure to video games and other interactive, screen-based applications.

I’m delighted that last month she published a comprehensively researched, clearly and compassionately written book explaining how interactive screens affect children’s mood, thinking, and arousal, with a lot of practical guidance on how to restore their children. In 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, Dr. Dunckley validates parents’ concerns, pulling together research from a range of scientific fields, and in clear language explains screen-time’s effects on the nervous system.

Dr. Dunckley suggests thinking about the stress on the brain from the stimulation of electronics use as not unlike caffeine, amphetamines, or cocaine. She makes a compelling case that the nervous system’s hyperarousal (fight-or-flight response) that kicks in while playing video games sets in motion an array of biological mechanisms that lead to significant functional impairments. She says that seizure activity, along with other tangible symptoms including migraines and tics, is at the extreme end of a continuum of nervous system dysfunction due to the brain’s hyperarousal. Irritability and general nervous system dysfunction are at the other end of the continuum. Other symptoms on that spectrum include mood swings, poor executive functioning, poor impulse control, anxiety, depression, body clock disruption, and immune system suppression.

Dr. Dunckley stresses that the impairments from screen-time are not limited to screen-addicted kids or those who play violent video games, and that playing “in moderation” can still affect a child’s nervous system. Exposure tolerance varies greatly, so some children can resume limited screen use without relapses in behavior and functioning. Those with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders have a greater likelihood of becoming dysregulated by screen exposure. In general, though, the more stimulating the sensory experience, from vivid colors, rapid movements and scene changes, and multi-modal sensory input, and the more frequently the child is exposed to it, the greater the accumulated strain on the nervous system. The greater that strain, the more difficult it becomes for children to control their emotions and behavior.

“Whatever the subject manner, the style or manner in which content is delivered has its own impact. Research indicates that movement, zooms, pans, cuts, and vividness…contribute to repeated fight-or-flight reactions. Screen size affects arousal levels as well, with larger screens producing higher levels of arousal.”

On to the good news: if given respite from overstimulation, the nervous system can restore itself. Dr. Dunckley has treated hundreds of patients whose mood, behavior, and cognitive abilities have been restored after an electronic “fast,” in which electronic screens are set aside for 3 to 4 weeks for an initial evaluation period. In many cases serious limits or total abstinence from screens is necessary to sustain the remarkable improvements in daily functioning that occur. The majority of the book is devoted to practical guidance for parents on how to undertake the daunting task of disentangling a young person from daily screen use.

This book is done extremely well. It begins with a thoughtful synthesis of non-industry-funded research from widely dispersed fields, connecting the dots to show what the body’s response is to environmental stressors. Dr. Dunckley shows considerable respect for parents’ conflicted feelings and their guilt about their own screen habits:

“Let’s face it. Hearing that video games, texting, and the iPad might need to be banned from your child’s life does not fill one with glorious joy. Rather, for many, it creates an immediate urge to find a way either to discredit the information or to work around it…the inconvenience of what I’m proposing can seem overwhelming…some folks feel as though their parenting skills are being judged, or that their efforts or level of exhaustion are underappreciated.”

Victoria Dunckley, MD

Victoria Dunckley, MD

Dr. Dunckley provides cases from her own practice that show how life-changing the difference can be when a child’s nervous system is given a respite from electronic screens.  This is serious business:

“The goal of screen limits is not merely to get rid of bothersome symptoms but to optimize a child’s development over time. All children benefit from screen limits, which have a compounded effect on functioning later in life.”

She is spot on. As some of you know, I’ve been there. Eight years ago it was a bittersweet revelation to see my daughter’s potential reemerge after a long period of impairments and health problems brought on by video game seizures. She lost several years of optimal learning, social development, and health because of frequent seizures we were unaware of during her daily video game use. We didn’t realize just how severely she’d been affected until she swore off gaming and made dramatic gains.

For the record, I don’t hate video games. But I am very disturbed that they can be so damaging to kids’ everyday functioning and potential. Read this book! Share it with your friends, too.

Note: I’ve linked to the book’s Amazon.com page so you can see the very enthusiastic reviews posted there. I am not endorsing Amazon, nor do I have a financial stake in any purchase you may decide to make.

 



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