This Generation's "Back Then" Issue

I remember having an argument with my older brother when I was seven or eight years old. I didn’t want to wear my seatbelt in the car. When my brother reminded me to put it on then I really didn’t want to wear it. A heated argument ensued, but was interrupted almost immediately by our dad chiming in: “Wyatt, if she doesn’t want to wear a seatbelt, leave her alone and don’t make her wear it!” I guess he was tired of the arguing. And times were different back then.


Back then we didn’t know just how critical seatbelts were to saving lives. Back then we just didn’t realize how a simple precaution could save a lifetime of heartache. A lot of people not wearing seatbelts had to die before we finally woke up and realized that car safety might be something we ought to take a little more seriously. But back then we still just didn’t know.


Have you ever stopped to wonder about the “back then” we’re living in right now? That a generation from now we’ll look back and marvel at the things we didn’t know, or even willfully ignored, because it wasn’t convenient or preferable or easy to accept what was instead of what we wanted to be? Once upon a time physicians were widely used in ad campaigns to promote smoking the “healthier” brand of cigarettes, and you better believe there were studies linking smoking to lung cancer long before the practice slowly dwindled in the late 1950s. We the people like our little luxuries, and we really don’t want to be told they’re not good for us. 


But isn’t it fair to ask the question: Are our lives worth the risk?


I believe today we are living in the “back then” of screen technology use with children. Researchers are constantly learning more about the affects of screen exposure, asking questions about the relevance of content, the different between interactive and passive screen media consumption, and the affects of screen use on healthy kids versus kids who already have developmental, psychological, or sensory issues to start with. 


But not much of this research gets talked about in wider society. Not many parents realize the abundance of evidence pointing to the pitfalls of screen exposure for children, and so we charge ahead with getting our kids cell phones and tablets and funding technology advances in our public schools because it all looks like progress. But I wonder if parents and educators and even health care professionals would be so quick to defend and promote screen time if they only knew, really paid attention to, the potential down side.


I think a lot of parents already sense that screen technology is an issue. I think many already feel uncomfortable with their kids’ overuse of tablets and smartphones, but they lack a substantiated reason to reel it back and face a whole lot of opposition from kids and school and society alike and so they ignore the nagging feeling and suppress the discomfort and they just wonder. 


If you are a parent who wonders, let me give you a little substantiation for your concern. Victoria L. Dunckley, MD is an integrative psychiatrist who has coined the term Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) to encompass the many signs and symptoms of screen use. In her book Reset Your Child’s Brain she explains how many of these signs and symptoms mimic behaviors associated with diagnosable conditions such as ADD, ADHD, Autism, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD, or Tourette syndrome to name just a few. Children with these underlying conditions are certainly affected by screen use, but perfectly healthy, non-screen-addicted children are also susceptible to develop these symptoms, sometimes with as little as twenty minutes or half an hour of screen use a week. Different children respond differently to screen stimuli and not every child who plays too much on a tablet will develop a screen addiction or some neurologic disorder. But just as I would caution someone against smoking even though some people can smoke their whole lives and not develop lung cancer, I think it’s fair to ask the obvious question: is it worth the risk?


Here are some of the symptoms Dunckley outlines in her book that have been linked to screen use in children from toddlers to young adults:

  • A child that seems revved up much of the time
  • Meltdowns over minor frustrations
  • Full-blown rages
  • Increasing levels of opposition, defiance, or disorganization
  • Irritability and resistance to stopping video game or computer use
  • Dilated pupils after using electronics
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • A “moth to a flame” type attraction to screens
  • General malaise or disinterest in life, unhappiness, less enjoyment with non-screen activities than was once experienced
  • Immature behavior that makes making or keeping friends difficult
  • Lack of interest or curiosity for subjects or activities that don’t involve screens
  • Falling grades or school performance for no apparent reason
  • Professionals in child’s life (teachers, pediatricians, therapists) suggesting or suspecting mental health or anxiety disorders but no family history of such conditions
  • Conflicting diagnoses; unresponsiveness to medications
  • A “wired and tired” quality—exhaustion but inability to sleep, or sleep without feeling rested
  • Child appears lazy, unmotivated, poor attention to detail
  • Child seems stressed but you can’t quite pinpoint why
  • Child is receiving services but therapies not effective


Dr. Dunckley’s conclusions suggest that even if screen use is not the initial cause of these symptoms in any given individual, screen use will almost always exacerbate the issue. Does it still seem worth is to treat screens like harmless mini babysitters?


We need to pay more attention to the environment we are creating for our children. We need to proceed with caution when it comes to our kids’ interaction with screen technologies and our cavalier attitude about what’s good for them and what they need to get ahead. If you’ve ever worried that your child is spending too much time on a device, they probably are. Do something about it. It’s not fair to expect our kids to navigate this technological world through willpower or common sense—how well does that work with adults? Let’s arm our children for success by educating ourselves and parenting well. 


Let’s not make our own kids the subjects of the next generation’s “back then we didn’t know better” conversations. Let’s get educated and start protecting our kids from our own screen overuse and abuse.


Pushing back on screen use may not be the most popular stance at the moment, but I know my kids are worth it. Yours are too. Will you stand with me?