This Is Your Brain…on Screens

As schools around the nation are hosting their first days of the 20/21 school year, a few topics of concern have been swirling through my Speech-Language Pathologist brain. Within a few short days in April, our speech clinic went from seeing our clients 100% in person to completely online, for as many as 7 hours per day. For the past six months in our practice, I’ve witnessed a slow but obvious decrease in toleration for tele-therapy. Our clients went from happily engaged to demonstrating an increase in behaviors, frustration, and in some cases, regression. I noticed a decline in my own energy level, mood, and overall health with relationships in my life. I began to worry that something was getting in the way of our connection with our students. Then, last week, we learned that most schools were to start back to school on an e-learning platform.

For years, research has been focused on identifying exactly what the relationship between excessive screen time and how our brain changes in it’s wake. From changing levels of gray matter, to increasing needs for dopamine given by the addiction of screens, we are starting to see a lot of “fall out” not only in children but in adults as well. Although we need several more years of study to gain a clear picture of long term ramifications, one thing we clearly understand is that the blue lights from screens effect our sleep thus making it more difficult to retain information, stabilize our moods, and concentrate throughout the day.

Because we live in such a digital age, we need to be mindful of the effects that prolonged screen use can have on our overall health.  Not in fear of screens, but to respect that when our children are on the computer learning for 5 hours a day, we may need to say “no” to them spending several more hours on watching their favorite shows or playing games. For those kiddos and teachers who have chosen digital learning this semester, or those have not been given a choice, here are a few “brain break” tips for us to model for our kids.

  • Beware of your own digital media distractions. Half of all kids and three-quarters of parents feel the other is distracted when talking to each other. 
  • Eat regular meals together without screens.
  • Put down your device. Be present with others. Observe the world around you. Let your mind wander. Boredom is the key to creativity.
  • Avoid blue light-emitting screen use before bedtime or turn on your blue light blocker.
  • Play (limited) online games WITH your children rather than forbidding them. Learn how to play from them and, as you play, help them think about what they’re seeing and doing on screen.
  • Help your children plan how to spend their time, focusing on important and favorite activities to avoid sliding into the screen abyss.
  • Set a timer on your device that warns you when you’ve been on a certain amount of time.
  • Disable social media during times when your family is together throughout the day.
  • Make sure the teacher in a well-lit space so your child can clearly see his/her face.

Yesterday, as I nervously asked my son how his first day back was, his reply, “So awesome, best day ever!” Regardless of all of my hesitation with sending my kids back to school this year, I now know that it was exactly the right choice for our family. My kids knew they needed to be off of the computer and learning with their peers, and I’m glad I trusted them enough to put my own fears aside. Listen to your kids; they will tell you what they need, if not by words, then by their actions. This year, let’s see if we can form a few new habits in relation to technology, and make it the best year yet!

Sarah E. Van Winkle, M.S. CCC-SLP

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