Screen Time – How Much is Too Much?
[2600 words – in-depth – 8 minute read]
“Chris, how much screen time should I give my kid?” This is the burning question for many parents and educators today, and we hear it often. No one seems to know exactly the right screen time answer, but everyone feels like kids spend too much time on screens.
Some say that glowing screens may be good for kids – an interactive educational tool. Others are skeptical.
I recently met with the Curriculum Coordinator for a large public school near Grand Rapids. We were creating a strategy for informing parents in the district about digital risks and solutions for protecting their kids. At the end of our meeting, he asked:
“Chris, have other educators talked to you about their younger grades? Kindergarten, first, and second grade? It’s almost impossible to get them to sit still. The teachers are saying it’s getting more and more difficult to keep their attention. These are teachers with decades of experience. They know kids. Is it the technology? Are they getting too much at home? What are you seeing?”
I had to admit that other educators had expressed similar concerns to me during in-class presentations that we do around the country.
Related Link: Request a Protect Young Eyes presentation @ your school
Recently, I decided to read the book Glow Kids by Dr. Nicholas Kardaras. It turns out that Dr. Kardaras has been counseling kids with troubling digital behaviors for years and has discovered screen time patterns worth sharing.
Kids and Screens – Why is the Glow So Addictive?
The simple answer is neurology. We were wired to respond favorably to actions that have a feel-good result, like sex, finding water, or finding food. These actions cause a feel-good neurochemical called dopamine to be released, which causes the brain to repeat whatever action just caused it to be released.
Certain behaviors cause different levels of dopamine to be released.
- Eating chocolate – can raise dopamine levels 50%
- Sex – can raise dopamine levels 100%
- Snorting cocaine – can raise dopamine levels 350% 
Brain-imaging research is showing that glowing screens – iPads, iPhones, Kindles – are as stimulating to the brain’s pleasure center and dopamine release as sex. Therefore, when a parent puts a glowing iPhone in the hands of a crying child, it’s as if a brain orgasm is being released. Which is the reason why kids and adults can’t put them down.
Have you ever just watched a young child who is fixated on a screen? They are zeroed in. Engrossed. You might have to call their name 2-3 times to get their attention. Their eyes are dilated. This is due to dopamine.
Science shows us that dopamine:
- Focuses our attention
- Motivates us forward; and
- Activates and enhances rewards circuitry that make you feel good.
Keep in mind that adults have a fully-developed frontal cortex, which controls impulsivity and decision-making. And yet, just after a couple hours of your favorite fast-paced, action movie, even you have a hard time focusing on reading a book and sitting still.
In the still-developing, 3-year-old brain, this level of impulsivity control is not present. Therefore, the flashing glitter of screens starts to create an attention template (more on templates later) that no kindergarten teacher can compete with.
Virtual Reality is Replacing Morphine
The orgasm-like neurological impact of screens on brains is so profound that the University of Washington Medical Center is now using virtual reality video games instead of addiction-forming narcotic painkillers as part of its pain-management program for severe burn victims. By playing the game SnowWorld through a set of VR goggles and using a joystick to throw snowballs at cute penguins, severe burn patients find that their sensation of pain decreases greatly while playing the game.
In other words, virtual reality is taking the place of morphine.
Whether you believe it was creation or evolution, human beings have brains that are wired for rewards.
And, the creators of today’s video games are knowledgeable about our neurochemistry, using techniques like a “variable ratio reward schedule” to keep kids playing. Slot machines use this technique – rewards are distributed randomly, which keeps the player hopeful and putting in quarter after quarter. Minecraft uses a variable ratio reward schedule, by hiding ores randomly throughout the digital earth.
In Glow Kids, Commander Dr. Doan of the U.S. Navy has harsh words for the gaming industry. He was hopelessly addicted as an adult to World of Warcraft (WoW), and so he has no love for game creators.
“Gaming companies will hire the best neurobiologists and neuroscientists to hook up electrodes to the test-gamer. If they don’t elicit the blood pressure that they shoot for – typically 180 over 120 or 140 within a few minutes of playing, and if they don’t show sweating and an increase in their galvanic skin response [a change in the electrical resistance of the skin caused by emotional stress] they go back and tweak the game to get that maximum addicting and arousing response that they’re looking for.” [Glow Kids, page 22]
Internet Addiction Disorder – Is That a Thing?
Dr. Victoria Dunckley is a child psychiatrist who is connecting the dots between the massive increase in childhood bipolar disorder and ADHD, and fast-paced screens.
She found that visits for kids diagnosed with pediatric bipolar disorder had increased 40-fold from 1994 to 2003; that between 1980 and 2007 the diagnosis of ADHD had increased by nearly 800 percent .
She started to ask the question, “is this simply due to advances in diagnosis or something else?”
Eventually, Dr. Dunckley started using the label electronic screen disorder (ESS) to describe the reason for the enormous increase in attention- and mood-related diagnoses in children. She theorized that ESS was disrupting the formation of a child’s attention template. Templates are simply patterns of thinking that are established during our formative years.
But, because it’s unethical to test her theory on children by feeding them copious levels of screen time, she’s relying on the old principle in medicine that if the cure works, you probably have the disease.
By removing screens through a prescription of tech fasting from over 500 kids that have visited her practice with varying levels of psychiatric disorders, Dr. Dunckley has found a reduction in symptoms in 80% of her patients. 
In 2008, China became the first country to declare internet addiction a clinical disorder. According to Glow Kids, China has identified Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) as its number one health crisis, with more than 20 million Internet-addicted teens, and South Korea has opened 400 tech addiction rehab facilities and given every student, teacher, and parent a handbook warning them of the potential dangers of screens and technology.
We created technology. But, now technology is recreating us.
Steve Jobs and Montessori – Low-tech to the Extreme
In 2010, when a reporter asked Steve Jobs about how much his kids must love the new iPad Apple had just invented, his response was, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
Later in life, when asked about technology in the classroom, Steve said, “I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody on the planet. But, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.” 
Interestingly, some of Silicon Valley’s brightest were educated in very low-tech environments. Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page, along with Amazon founder and richest man in the world Jeff Bezos, and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales all went to low-tech Montessori schools.
Consider this 1:05 video from Business Insider, reporting on the no-tech Wardorf school in Silicon Valley, with children of tech company executives making up 75% of its student population.
Pierre Laurent, a former Microsoft executive and father of two teenage boys who attended the Wardorf school said this:
“I love computers…they can do wonderful things…But, you can overuse technology and become a slave to it…Then I read a book called The Growth of the Mind, by Stanley Greenspan, which explains how we learn when we are small through our interactions with the world…We decided that there’s no harm in not exposing children to screens until they’re big enough. It can only be beneficial.” 
Video Game Addiction – Screen Time to the Extreme
In Glow Kids, Dr. Kardaras shares the following story about an extreme gamer named Dan who was referred for therapy.
“As he walked into my office, he looked dazed and disoriented…and terrified. He slowly sat down, nervously fidgeting in the chair…constantly jerking his head as he kept fearfully looking around my office.
‘Dan, do you know where you are?’
No answer. He blinked once more. Then, finally, he looked straight at me and stammered in a tone of genuine confusion: “Are…are…we still in the game?”
Dr. Kardaras goes on to describe Dan’s condition as a form of gaming-induced psychosis, also called Game Transfer Phenomena or the “Tetris Effect.”  Dan had been playing World of Warcraft for 10-12 hours a day. He was so attached, that he would pee in a Mason jar next to his computer. WoW is the world’s most popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).
At the end of the session, Dan started to cry. “I’m scared. I don’t know what’s happening…am I going crazy?”
According to Dr. Kardaras, Dan fit a specific stereotype of kid that typically walked into his office. Many, like Dan, “were looking for some sort of deeper connection and sense of purpose. Alienated and adrift in soulless and institutional high schools, the meaning-starved kid finds purpose in a digital fantasy realm of adventure where there are monsters to slay, competitors to vanquish and prizes to attain; there is a soul-satisfying sense of purpose – and, if the games are played with others, a shared sense of purpose.” [page 12]
This story and its meaning blew my mind. Purpose. Togetherness. These are basic desires of the human heart. All hijacked by excessive use of technology.
Social media has a similar pull, but more frequently with teen girls and for kids who are socially more adept. It’s their playground for popularity, flaunting images of their wonderful life, their beautiful bodies; a resting place for harsh words and subtle but significant emojis.
For the gamer and for the social media elite, the problem of digital addiction seems to be an equal opportunity destroyer. According to Dr. Kardaras, “with every burst of virtual gunfire, every text and tweet, there is a release – a little squirt of dopamine, just as surely as cocaine tickles our dopamine neurotransmitters.” [page 14]
Is My Child Addicted to Screen Time?
Signs of screen time addiction to look for according to Glow Kids include:
- Is your child staying up later and later to use devices?
- Does your child get fidgety, anxious and/or angry if they don’t have their device?
- Is their tech usage negatively impacting their relationships at home, school work, or other activities?
- Is your child deceptive about device usage?
- Does your child seem perpetually tired yet also wired?
- Has a teacher ever complained that your kid has fallen asleep in class?
- Is your child indicating that he/she can’t get digital imagery out of his/her head?
If this describes your child, just Google “technology addiction centers USA” for a screen time solution. We also provide a list of treatment centers in our blog post, “Does My Child Have an Internet Addiction,” toward the bottom.
Whether your child is 2 or 12, we believe these principles apply based on what we’re learning from the neuroscience and addiction recovery communities:
1. Less is more when it comes to infant screen time. We don’t know exact answers, but everything is pointing toward keeping screens away from our little ones. A May 2017 study found that 18-month-olds who did not use screens had significantly better language skills than those who used screens.
SANITY CHECK: hey, stay-at-home-parent, if you need to shove a screen in your kid’s hands just so you can take a shower, we get it. We do it, too. Our son Grant has Down Syndrome, and ZERO attention span. Sometimes a screen, in limited doses, is the only way for Andrea to get anything done. No judgment here, but this is the exception and not the norm.
2. Make them go outside and play. A kid who has healthy human connections and healthy hobbies and outlets is less likely to fall into addiction in general. Nothing beats going outside and soaking up the green. We were created in nature and it seems that we learn best in nature. Green spaces. Bugs. Mud. Sunshine on the skin (except for us Michiganders!).
According to Tim Drake, founder of Primitive Pursuits, a nonprofit nature-based program in New York, “Nature is where we come from. It brought us to where we are today. The reason we’re successful as a species is because of our original relationship with nature. Exposing a child to that touches the hardwiring of being human—they become ‘activated.’” [Glow Kids page 241]
3. Let them be bored. Read that last sentence again. Riding in the car without a screen is good. Staring at the power wires and pondering where the wires go or came from is like mental fitness. Counting the cows in the field and then wishing that your parents would buy you a farm animal named Curtis is great mental exercise. Let them be bored. Teach them to be still. Teach them to imagine.
It’s in those quiet, seemingly boring moments that real imagination and creativity are allowed to take root. According to Dr. Kardaras, “there is nothing healthier for a child than to learn how to use their own interior resources to work through the challenges of being bored. This then acts as the fertile ground for developing an active imagination…” [Glow Kids page 127]
4. Let them cry it out. When our kids cry or whine in public, and we hand them a screen to quiet them, we are promoting a quick fix mentality to treating their uncomfortable feelings. A flashing screen teaches the still-developing neurology of a 4-year-old that the dopamine rush from mom’s iPhone is the antidote when I’m upset. Screen time becomes the learned solution.
Showing our children how to find other ways to alleviate these emotions will possibly save them in the long run from using unhealthy, quick-fix remedies in emotionally charged situations. Even if you’re the mom with the screaming kid in aisle 10, find another way.
5. Let them see YOU doing the same. Parents, you need to model the behaviors you want to see in your child. Are you curious to know the amount of time you spend on your device? There’s an app for that!
Amanda Shaneberger is a limited licensed psychologist and licensed professional counselor specializing in treating the mental health needs of children, adolescents and their families at the Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services Northwest Clinic in Walker, MI. Her advice as a clinician:
“Many parents are intimidated by technology and fear setting limits with electronics because it may upset their child. However, children need limits set so that they can develop healthy habits for interacting with electronics. Setting limits with your children can help them grow into healthy adults that understand the importance of boundaries with people and with electronics.”
Screen Time and Education – A Special Note
Educators, I’ll just leave you with one quote from Glow Kids: “When the stimulation becomes preferable to the real, there arises a real question of the stimulation’s true educational value.” I fully support a balanced educational use of technology.
The point of this post and of Glow Kids is to challenge the idea that screens are necessary and substitutionary to actual experience. The primary problem is the age of exposure. Young kids (under 8) really should have as little screen time as possible. The studies are starting to prove that learning is actually worse in front of a screen. Did we jump onto the tech wagon too quickly?
Call to Action
Now What? Do this in the next 24 hours!
Now that you understand more about the impact of technology on your family, are you ready to have awesome conversations with your kids about how to use their technology well? Please visit our Protect Young Eyes Parent University, where you’ll find videos to watch with your kids, creating common vocabulary, and awesome chats. Sometimes, when kids hear someone else talk about awkward things, it helps them really hear it for the first time. Please visit the PYE Parent University today!
References for Screen Time and Kids – 5 Recommendations:
 Koepp et al., “Evidence for Striatal Dopamine Release During a Video Game.”
 Victoria Dunckley, “Electronic Screen Syndrome: An Unrecognized Disorder?” Psychology Today, July 23, 2012.
 Victoria Dunckley, “Screentime is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy,” Psychology Today, August 18, 2015.
 Tim Carmody, “What’s Wrong with Education Cannot be Fixed by Technology’ – The Other Steve Jobs,” Wired, January 17, 2012.
 Amy Fleming, “Screen Time v Play Time: What Tech Leaders Won’t Let Their Own Kids Do,” Guardian, May 23, 2015.
 Angelica B. Ortiz de Gotari and Mark D. Griffiths, “Altered Visual Perception in Game-Transfer Phenomena: An Empirical Self-Report Study,” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 30, no. 2 (2014): 95-105.
I love life. Seriously! Each. Day. A. Gift. Former CPA, business advisor, youth pastor, development director, porn survivor. Current marketing manager for Covenant Eyes and CEO of PYE. God shares wild ideas with me about life while I run. I love guiding parents to teach their kids how to use technology well while protecting them from the bad stuff.