Martial arts has a reputation for helping children with issues of behavior, concentration and academic performance. This reputation, for the most part, is well earned. Over the years, I have have personally worked to understand how martial arts helps children so that we at Traditional Martial Arts Academy can offer families the best possible support in their children’s development.
In the past decade, I have seen an increase in children struggling with focus and behavior management. During this period, screen time (use of TV’s, video games, computers and handheld devices) and overscheduling has exploded in kids’ lives. Children are always entertained, never bored and often exhausted.
I recognize that correlation does not lead directly to causation, but after working with literally tens of thousands of children over the past decade alone, I have developed a level of expertise that offers a certain insight. In this article, I will explore some of what I have seen, particular in how screen time has impacted the development of children.
The use of screens is ubiquitous for children now. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that children average seven hours a day of screen time. That is a stunning number! I’ll let it sink in and take a step back from this topic for a moment to give some context.
Let’s take a look at a different major rapid shift in American society. When I look at my class pictures from elementary school in the 70’s, it was rare to see an overweight child. The typical body-type for kids back then was skinny. America now has an obesity epidemic, and I can see it when I visit elementary schools. The typical body-type is no longer skinny.
Over the past thirty years, the food we eat has changed dramatically. I ate plenty of junk food and drank sodas as a kid, but the portions were much smaller. Food wasn’t as heavily processed and full of ingredients like corn syrup. And fast food was for special events, not a daily necessity borne of overscheduled lifestyles.
Our relationship with food was very different thirty years ago, and it has changed with amazing speed and yet, imperceptibly. Suddenly (if a few decades is sudden) we find ourselves heavier as a country and many of us struggle with the physical and emotional toll of weight we just can’t seem to lose.
The changes in how we eat have been dramatic, rapid and the result of choices we have made both as individuals and as a country. The unintended consequence (mass obesity on a societal scale) has been equally dramatic.
The use of screens has increased in an equally dramatic fashion, over a similar period (though this has really accelerated over the past 5-10 years). And the unintended consequences have the potential to be similarly dramatic and devastating, not just to physical health but mental health and even to the physiology of our brains, particularly for children.
The obvious physical consequence of screen time is that it displaces time that would otherwise be spent being active. Sedentary lifestyles are tied with obesity. But there are other, more subtle risks. First, advertising on TV can encourage dietary habits that are unhealthy for kids. Much of the food and drinks that target children are high in sugar and are major contributors to health problems that kids are facing today. Plus, kids (and their parents) are more likely to eat while using a screen, particular if they are being fed advertisements that encourage unhealthy snacking.
Another, and perhaps more subtle, consequence to the sedentary lifestyle that screens encourage is the consequence to being comfortable in one’s body. To develop attributes like coordination, agility, stamina and muscle tone, you have to use your body. But if you don’t have these attributes, using your body can be more challenging and lead to uncomfortable emotions like embarrassment, shame and frustration. And thus we have a downward spiral. A child spends time on screens instead of physical play, so important physical attributes get stunted. Then when it comes time to use his or her body, play proves awkward and uncomfortable which reinforces the comfort of screen time. So screen time because the preferred distraction—which increases physical stunting and keeps the child stuck in a spiral that moves them further and further from being able to enjoy their body and stay physically healthy.
Heavy daily use of screens are changing our bodies. In addition to the loss of fitness described above, sitting for hours a day—particularly with the slouching posture normally associated with TV watching and video game play—is devastating to the musculoskeletal system. Muscle tone is lost and unhealthy skeletal alignments and posture becomes fixed.
Even the constant use of handheld devices has begun to change our bodies. A dowager’s hump—the forward projection of the head, often with the face angled towards the ground, accompanied with a hump in the upper back—has long been associated with elderly women. Osteoporosis (loss of bone density) leads to spontaneous fractures in the spine causing the disfiguring collapse of the posture (see picture) called a dowager’s hump.
Now, people are developing this condition at younger and younger ages as result of looking down at their phones or working on a computer for prolonged periods of time, rather than from age and the weakening of their bones. I’ve even begun to see this posture in children as young as six.
I have presented some of the physical consequences of too much screen time. Now I will explore some of the mental and emotional problems that can result from kids spending too much time looking at screens.
The heavy screen use common among kids today causes parts of their brains to atrophy (shrink). Several studies using various brain scan technologies have found loss of mass in several parts of the brain that are essential for cognition, behavior and emotional balance.
Areas affected include insula, cerebral cortex (particularly the frontal lobe) and white matter throughout the brain.
The insula is found deep within the brain and is involved in the development of empathy and compassion, as well as the ability to process physical cues of emotion (facial expressions and body language in others). Atrophy in this area can impact a child’s ability to manage his or her emotions, have emotions appropriate to experience (not over-reacting or being numb) and be able to make healthy social connections with others.
The cerebral cortex is the outer layer of brain tissue and is essential to higher brain functions like memory, attention, perception, cognition, and language. The impact of screen time in the cortex is heaviest on the frontal lobe. Atrophy in this area can impact a child’s cognition.
The frontal lobe is the seat of executive function which includes planning, organizing and impulse control. Atrophy in this area can impact a child’s ability to delay gratification and get things done.
White matter forms the bulk of the interior brain and is responsible for how the brain learns and functions by making connections within the brain itself. As white matter is lost, there is a loss in communication between brain regions and can lead to a slowing of signals across the brain and even short-circuit those signals and make them erratic. This can impact all aspects of cognition and social/emotional balance.
Specific to video games, there are also changes in the brain’s dopamine receptors. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain (neurotransmitter) that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine is released during gaming in a way that is similar to what happens in addicts’ brains when they get the drugs they are craving.
Pediatricians and mental health professionals have seen a rise in disorders in children that impact mood, cognition and behavior. Children are increasingly being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADD/ADHD and often receiving medication to manage (or simply mask) the symptoms. There is growing support for the theory that these changes in the mental health of children are the result of two things: shifts in diet (a topic for another article!) and screen use.
Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley has tied screen use to a pattern of mental health issues in children and has termed this pattern Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). She attributes the symptoms of this diagnosis to how screens unnaturally stimulate and stress the nervous system (regardless of the content) leading to difficulties in self-regulation and stress management. Dr. Dunckley describes ESS as a stand-alone mental health issue that can create psychiatric problems in children who otherwise would be healthy and can exacerbate previously existing disorders.
The over-stimulation of the nervous system leads to dysregulation, or the inability to regulate mood, attention or respond appropriately to things and people in the environment. Basically, screens amp up children’s nervous systems (even when they appear catatonic from the outside) in a way that is out of proportion with the real world outside of the screen. Since the child is adapting to the environment of the screen, they are no longer able to appropriately adapt to the world around them.
Here is Dr. Dunkley’s description of the symptoms associated with ESS:
ESS Characteristics in Children
- The child exhibits symptoms related to mood, anxiety, cognition, behavior, or social interactions that cause significant impairment in school, at home, or with peers. Typical signs/symptoms mimic chronic stress and include irritable, depressed or labile mood, excessive tantrums, low frustration tolerance, poor self-regulation, disorganized behavior, oppositional-defiant behaviors, poor sportsmanship, social immaturity, poor eye contact, insomnia/non-restorative sleep, learning difficulties, and poor short-term memory.
- ESS may occur in the absence or presence of other psychiatric, neurological, behavior or learning disorders, and can mimic or exacerbate virtually any mental-health related disorder.
- Symptoms markedly improve or resolve with strict removal of electronic media (an “electronic fast”); three to four week electronic fasts are often sufficient but longer fasts may be required in severe cases.
- Symptoms may return with re-introduction of electronic media following a fast, depending on a variety of factors. Some children can tolerate moderation after a fast, while others seem to relapse immediately if re-exposed.
- Vulnerability factors exist and include: male gender, pre-existing psychiatric, neurodevelopmental, learning, or behavior disorders, co-existing stressors, and total lifetime electronic media exposure. At particular risk may be boys with ADHD and/or autsim spectrum disorders.
I have seen direct evidence of this in the martial arts school. Children who spend a lot of time in front of screens often have shorter attention spans, get frustrated more quickly and are often less connected with their bodies. During the summer months, this can become even more apparent. Children who are prone to spend long periods of time in front of the screen often have more opportunities to indulge the habit when there is no school. More often than not, I can tell when one of these kids comes into the school after spending a day parked in front of screens. This is the case with all kids, but is especially true for children that come to us with diagnoses like ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and sensory integration/processing issues.
It is clear that heavy screen use is potentially an enormous health issue for children. Identifying the problem is one thing, but what can you, as a parent, do to help your child? I recommend starting with a media fast of 2-4 weeks. This will be very difficult for your child and, because you will have to enforce it, very difficult for you. But it is an important first step because it will give you solid feedback on how, and how much, screen use is affecting your child. Once you see clear evidence of the impact screens have on your child’s mind, it will be much easier to find the inspiration to make more permanent changes in how your child relates to them.
If you decide to do a fast, I recommend you have other activities in mind. Instead of simply getting rid of the screens, crowd them out with things that are healthier for your child’s mind. You still want to be clear with your child that he or she is doing a fast and why, but it will be easier for your child to make the adjustment if there is something that replaces the screens.
Ideally, as you work with your child on their screen habits, you will reflect on your own. It is difficult to hold a child to a standard that you can’t even hold for yourself. Make the fast a family event. Of course, if you use screens professionally (and your child as part of their school work), you will have to allow for that as part of a fast. But you can remove any recreational screen use during the experiment.