There was a time when my husband came home from work that our child would go running to the front door as fast as her toddler feet could carry her, shouting “DADDY!” with outstretched arms as he crouched down to catch her and sweep her up into a massive hug.
Then, around 18 months old, something happened.
He’d come home and crouch down with his beaming smile … and she didn’t come running. She was tuned in like a zombie. And I didn’t dare try to turn it off or physically remove her, or else she’d fall into an all-out raging toddler tantrum.
So I tried “limiting screen time” and experimented with “just a couple hours in the morning” or “just one hour in the afternoon,” but her attitude and indifference were not very much improved.
Not only did I selfishly love the babysitting powers that screen time had for keeping her still and quiet, but I had justified her daily hours of screen-time because she wasn’t watching anything inappropriate, too scary or too idiotic. Indeed, most of what she watched was either innocent fairy tales or specifically educational. I could see her picking up new things from these shows and was proud to see she was learning. Plus, she didn’t watch that much TV — I thought.
And at just the right moment in time, I learned some alarming information about screen-time: It’s not necessarily the content or the amount of time, it’s the SCREEN itself.
Televisions and screens both have a “refresh rate.” When rates are set too low, monitors can imperceptibly flicker, causing your eyes to strain more than necessary. The refresh rate indicates how many times per second your computer screen renews its image. (Note: You can search online for ways to change your screen refresh rates, to help aid with this).
I first learned of this phenomenon when listening to Denay Barahona, Ph.D., conduct an interview on the Simple Families podcast with Dr. Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., a world-renowned biologist and outdoors advocate who focuses on studying the connection between movement and brain development. Dr. Hannaford says, “If you turn the lights off and you’ve got your television (or computer) on, you’ll notice a flicker, and the programmers have learned something. They’ve learned that when you do light changes on the screen, the brain immediately says, ‘There’s danger!’ It’s like a wild animal coming out of the forest at you. There’s a change of light, so immediately we start producing two huge chemicals — adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these chemicals shut down the neocortex of the brain by 75 to 85% and we go into a reactive mode in order to ‘save ourselves’. So here are these children with high levels of adrenaline and cortisol who are playing on computers and when we stop their screen time, are they nice and calm? Do they go play by themselves? Not at all! They are in survival mode!”
Our children simply can’t decompress afterward. It doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes or three hours — it’s hard for them to come off that “high” and separate from the screen, even after only a little exposure. “It’s called adrenaline addiction,” continues Dr. Hannaford. “It’s not just the kids who are addicted, it’s the parents too, and it’s just not healthy.”
Computer and device screens emit an unnatural balance of light that can stress the body. This blue light is why so many doctors recommend that children and adults not look at any screens before bedtime. (Note: You can purchase screen overlays and screen glasses that help block some of this blue light). The blue light that’s emitted from these screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin, which in turn increases alertness and resets the body’s internal clock/circadian rhythm to a later schedule.
With small children, having a curfew for screen time at bedtime is not enough, when they need one to two (or more) naps a day. By sprinkling in screen time throughout the day, we are affecting each sleep cycle they should naturally have. This recent article on blue light’s effect on children says that a 2017 study revealed that toddlers and preschoolers who hadn’t gotten sufficient sleep had more issues with attention, emotional control, and problem-solving abilities at age 7.
And finally, it’s the lack of physical movement that is so destructive to our young children. Kids behind screens aren’t moving. During our younger years, humans should be primarily working on their vestibular system so they can be stable and develop a sense of their bodies. Scientists have discovered we learn and develop largely through our senses, rather than by our brain, as previously thought.
So with that in mind, we should be encouraging our children to climb on furniture and trees, to go whizzing down slides and pushing themselves higher on swings. We should be encouraging that natural sensory input, where they can feel the wind on their face, the sweat on their brow, the dirt on their hands, and jump in surprise at the sound of a firetruck zooming by. We should be encouraging human connection and socialization. We should be lifting up their confidence in themselves and giving them opportunities to work on their motor skills.