DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My son began virtual learning when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our local school system. He is 14 and enjoys school online, so we have continued this. Unfortunately, my son's only extracurricular activities are screen-based, as well. Should I limit his activities online, even though he's doing well in school?
ANSWER: In an increasingly digitalized world, where most people — even children — own electronic devices with screens, many parents worry about the effects of screen use on themselves and their children.
To complicate matters, some screen time can be educational for children and support their social development. With the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders, many children and teens spent even more time playing video games to socialize with friends, since they couldn't get together in person.
With screens virtually everywhere, controlling a child's screen time can be challenging. It's difficult to avoid screens completely. However, excessive screen time can affect people's mental, social and physical health.
Too much screen time has been linked to:
Many people have cried, laughed or been startled while watching a movie. This is because their brains process and react to the sensory input as if it were happening to them. This same type of engagement is possible when a person plays a video game.
While gaming, a gamer's brain is processing the scenario as if it were real. If the game depicts a dangerous or violent situation, the gamers' bodies react accordingly. Their fight-or-flight response to that perceived danger is triggered by exposure to intense stimulation and violence in the game. Excessive video game use can lead to the brain being revved up in a constant state of hyperarousal.
Hyperarousal looks different for each person, and it can include difficulties with paying attention, managing emotions, controlling impulses, following directions and tolerating frustration. Some adults or children struggle with expressing compassion and creativity, and they have a decreased interest in learning. This can lead to a lack of empathy for others, which can lead to violence. Also, kids who rely on screens and social media to interact with others typically feel lonelier than kids who interact in person.
Chronic hyperarousal can have physical symptoms, as well, such as decreased immune function, irritability, jittery feelings, depression, and unstable blood sugar levels. In children, some can develop cravings for sweets while playing video games. Combined with the sedentary nature of gaming, children's diet and weight can be negatively affected, as well. Sometimes children will even avoid stopping the game to go to the restroom, which can lead to hygiene issues.
Similar to tobacco, alcohol or drugs, screen time or video games can become an addiction if it damages your health and relationships, and you are unable to control it.
Some symptoms could include:
If you are seeing any of these signs, it may be time to revisit your approach to your son's behaviors and use of screens.
You'll need to decide how much media to let your child use each day and what's appropriate based on your son's reactions. Set reasonable limits for your child's screen time and video game types, especially if your child's use of screens hinders involvement in other activities.
Also encourage active screen time over passive screen time. Active screen time is when you interact with other people you know, or when you are cognitively or physically engaged. For example, play educational games, or games that require players to build something together — or fitness-type games that require movement while playing. Passive screen time includes watching screens with minimal cognitive engagement, such as scrolling through social media or watching online videos.
Consider these tips:
If you're concerned about a child or loved one's use of screen time, consulting a behavioral or addictions specialist can help determine treatment options. — Fiona Swanson, Social Services, Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, Minnesota
Information in this post was accurate at the time of its posting. Due to the fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific understanding, along with guidelines and recommendations, may have changed since the original publication date.
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