Last Updated on April 20, 2021
Children are digital natives: This means they are born into a world where smartphones and other technology already exist. The ability to connect whenever or wherever was first introduced to the older generations as a luxury, but for Gen Z, and especially Gen Alpha, it is now an expectation.
Generation Z began in 1995, when wireless technology was just starting to develop. Generation Alpha, which began in 2013, is the generation born into a completely digitized world.
The wireless tech boom began to gain steam with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. Since then, technology has gotten less expensive, more compact, and more accessible. In 2011, one year after the iPad came out, only 10% of children under the age of two were using tablets or smartphones. Just two years later, by 2013, that percentage had quadrupled. In 2015, a French study revealed that 58% of children under the age of two consistently used a smartphone. Imagine what that percentage has increased to today.
Gone are the days when parents sent their kids outside to play when the only instructions were to be home before the streetlights came on. Now, more and more children are seeking out entertainment via mobile screens. Screens are present at home, during car rides, at school, at friends’ houses. They have infiltrated seemingly every part of their lives.
With the rising amount of device usage, for schooling, video games, social interactions and daily conveniences, come new health concerns for young children.
To blame? Both the act of engaging with technology and the EMF emissions generated by this technology can interact with brain development – leading to poor mental health and negative effects on learning abilities, disturbed sleep patterns, eye damage, and changes to physical health.
How EMF Emitting From Devices Affects Children
Electromagnetic radiation, or EMF radiation, is emitted by all technology, and especially those with wireless connections to WiFi or other devices. EMF is a low frequency form of energy that can have impacts on our cells and body functions, especially with chronic exposure. With children still developing on a physical, chemical, and biological level, this puts them at increased risk of harm from EMF emissions. They have a smaller-sized body, with rapidly duplicating cells, and a lot of conductive watery tissue. This means EMF frequencies can go deeper into a child’s body, and negatively affect cells that are being duplicated, harming a child’s development. Check out our DefenderShield Kids Page for more information.
A rise in screen time means a rise in EMF exposure. While it is hard to know which of the two has a bigger individual effect on sleep and health, EMF effects have been found to be present when a device is nearby, even without a screen on.
In a sleep study with 1925 student subjects, “keeping the mobile near the pillow while sleeping” was positively correlated with daytime sleepiness, sleep disturbances, and increased sleep latency.
Other known health effects of EMF, coming from thousands of studies on the subject, include various forms of illness, due to a breakdown at the cellular level and interference in cell communication. The effects are linked to chronic disease states, ADHD, Tinnitus, insomnia, Autism, Cancer, mental illnesses like depression, Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and problems related to focus, memory, and attentiveness. EMF studies have repeatedly shown gene mutations and DNA fragmentation, which can cause cell mutation and cancer.
Over their lifetime, children will accumulate more exposure to EMF radiation, increasing the likelihood they will experience negative health impacts as a result.
While EMF exposure has been exclusively linked to biological effects on the body, in the end, it’s a double whammy. Children are feeling the harmful effects surrounding both extensive screen time as well as the EMF exposure from their screens.
Below, we get into the potential impacts of both as a child grows and develops.
Screen Time & Brain Development
Brain development is one of the biggest—and scariest—negative ramifications of rising screen time among children.
From birth to age ten, the development of the brain goes through something called the Critical Period. The Critical Period refers to when a child’s brain is developing the most, with increased rates of glucose metabolism.
Glucose metabolism is representative of functional activity. As the brain goes through different stages of development, the glucose metabolism peaks in different parts at different times throughout childhood. These parts of the brain include the primary sensory and motor cortex, cingulate cortex, thalamus, brain stem, cerebellar vermis, and hippocampal region.
The book From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development explains it best: “The milestones of brain development from the prenatal period until school entry involve the development and migration of brain cells to where they belong in the brain, embellishments of nerve cells through the sprouting of new axons or by expanding the dendritic surface; the formation of connections, or synapses, between nerve cells; and the postnatal addition of other types of cells, notably glia.”
In plain terms, a LOT is going on in your brain during those early years. Disruptions to these processes could have long term effects, many of which are unknown.
The National Institutes of Health Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study found that there was a significant difference in MRI scans of childrens’ brains who use screens for more than seven hours a day versus those who don’t. Screens are literally disturbing the physical makeup of some childrens’ brains.
The rapid brain development during this time provides the foundation for further development. It’s especially sensitive to the surrounding environment, and during this time, is reacting to environmental stimuli to develop neural connections. Social and language skills are two very important milestones that are developed in the early years. Children require face-to-face interaction to learn these skills. There are certain nuances you get from personal interactions that cannot be portrayed through a screen.
Arguably, this could be the scariest effect because the long-term impacts are unknown. Ubiquitous screens are still a relatively new characteristic of childhood, so not enough time has gone by to study what could happen in the long run.
Look at cigarettes. They were adopted into social life without much second thought. It took multiple generations to fully comprehend the negative health consequences, and even now, people still smoke despite the fact there are numerous health hazards associated with it. Screens were warmly welcomed into our lives with open arms, and it will take a while to understand what effects, whether negative or positive, they have on our mental and physical health.
But, we do know there are tangible developmental changes happening in childrens’ brains as a result of screen time. While there are benefits to new technology, like the ability to have distance learning during the COVID-19 period, it’s important to manage screen time to maintain proper brain development.
Studies Showing Impaired Learning Ability
Early data that began in 2018 found that children who spent two hours or more a day in front of screens scored lower on language and thinking tests.
In extreme cases, children who had seven plus hours of screen time had thinner brain cortexes as a result. Your brain’s cortex controls critical thinking and reasoning, two main components in learning.
Dr. Jennifer F. Cross, attending pediatrician and a developmental and behavioral pediatrics expert at New York Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital, stated that while the researchers do not have a full understanding of what the data means, they can hypothesize that screens could narrow their focus of interest and limit means of exploration and learning.
Another expert in the field, Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, explains that too much screen time too early on in life impedes the development of a child’s ability to focus and concentrate, as well as interpersonal and communication skills.
A study from JAMA Pediatrics found that increased television and video game screen time among children between 4 and 18 was associated with worse academic performance.
It is becoming apparent that screen time is having an impact on children’s academic performance, and researchers are working to understand the mechanisms responsible.
Screen Time & Blue Light Effects on Eyes and Sleep
While exposure to some blue light does have its benefits including elevating your mood, improving cognition and memory, and boosting attentiveness and alertness, the amount of blue light needed to see those benefits can be achieved naturally from the sun, and is NOT from screens. Digital electronic screens use LED diodes to emit a high-energy blue light. This blue light is covered in low-energy phosphors to make the screen appear white.
Artificial blue light poses two main problems: physical damages to eyes as well as sleep pattern disruption.
Blue light has been connected with damaging the eyes’ retinas and destroying specific membranes because of the higher energy it has. It has also been found to cause macular degeneration.
Children’s eyes are still developing. They are at a higher risk for harm to their eyes if they look at too much blue light. As we age, the lenses of our eyes gradually begin to yellow. This crystalline lens protects the retina. The yellowing of this lens actually protects our eyes from harmful UV light and other sources’ shorter-wavelength light, including blue light. Younger children have yet to develop this built-in defense, making them more susceptible to long-term eye damage.
Another side effect of blue light is disrupted sleep patterns. The body has a natural sleep rhythm, the circadian rhythm, that helps regulate sleep-wake patterns. While the circadian rhythm is a self-sustaining internal process, it reacts to environmental stimuli called zeitgebers, from the German word for “time giver.” Environmental clues that trigger the circadian rhythm are tied to the light-dark cycle, the sun rise and sun set. However, ever since the introduction of electricity, humans can now have artificial light when it’s dark outside. Blue light is the worst offender when it comes to affecting the circadian rhythm.
Since it is a high-energy light form, blue light tricks your brain into thinking that it’s still day time and suppresses the secretion of melatonin. Harvard researchers found that after being exposed to 6.5 hours of blue light versus green light, the blue light suppressed melatonin for twice as long as the green light did, shifting the circadian rhythm by twice as much.
Why does light suppress melatonin? Melatonin release is dependent on proteins called cryptochromes. Cryptochromes are present in mammals, as well as plants and insects. They react to blue light, and are an important part of the biological clock. They are essentially the switch that regulates melatonin release.
To further understand the role of cryptochromes in the circadian rhythm, a study from the National Library of Medicine found that since mice do not have cryptochromes in their body, they do not have a circadian rhythm. This helped reinforce the fact that cryptochromes are functionally important to our body’s natural sleep-wake pattern. Cryptochromes are very sensitive to light–when they get overstimulated, it throws off the systems they are involved in, including disturbing the natural circadian rhythm. An increase in artificial blue light from screens has a direct effect on cryptochromes.
Children are more affected by impaired sleep patterns because they need more sleep than adults, as they are still growing and developing. The following are suggested recommendations for each age group:
- Newborns (0-3 months) 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-11 months) 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years) 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5 years) 10-13 hours
- School-aged children (6-13 years) 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17 years) 8-10 hours
To help combat the negative impacts, parents should help their kids decrease screen brightness, change the screen tint, or have their kids wear Blue Light Blocking Glasses to filter out the harmful blue light. A French study found that blue light blocking glasses prevent light-induced melatonin suppression, which may help children maintain normal patterns.
Screen Time & Mental Health
Research has found a connection between increased screen time and poor mental health. There are many studies that have linked screen time and mental health issues among adolescents.
One study found that there were links between recreational screen time and mental health issues, while no link was found for non-recreational screen time. Changes in total recreational screen-time were negatively associated with physical self-concept and psychological well-being. A positive association was found with television/DVD use and psychological difficulties.
A Canadian study documented how physical activity and screen time are independently associated with mental and physical health perceptions among Canadian adolescents. Adolescents exceeding 2 hours per day of screen time had 30% greater odds of sub-optimal self-reported health, and 30–50% greater odds of sub-optimal self-reported mental health.
Among adolescent Chinese students, high screen time and insufficient vigorous physical activity interact to increase depressive, anxiety symptoms and school life dissatisfaction among Chinese adolescents.
Meanwhile, in college-age Chinese students, high screen time was positively associated with anxiety, depression, psychopathological symptoms and poor sleep quality.
This topic hasn’t been studied as much among younger children, but the results are still cause for concern. A study in Preventive Medicine Reports found that based on a population study of over 40,000 American children, “after 1 h/day of use, more hours of daily screen time were associated with lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.“
Teenagers see more of a negative effect on their mental health from screen time—establishing screen time habits as children will only lead to more problems down the road.
Screen Time & Physical Health
The previously-mentioned mental health studies also found associations with poor physical health. The study of adolescent Chinese students found that sufficient vigorous physical activity was a protective factor for some of the negative effects of screen time on mental health.
Increased screen time is also related to childhood obesity. A study funded by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council found that one factor that predicted a higher BMI was greater TV viewing time. As screens are drawing children’s attention for longer periods of time, they are being less physically active in the ways kids used to be active in their childhoods. A decrease in physical activity will lead to increased weight.
Maintaining a healthy weight is one very important aspect to maintaining good overall health.
How to Combat Excessive Screen Time
Not all screen time is necessarily bad. Benefits of the new technology include educational value, including school-related homework help and research; video games can help improve motor skills and coordination; and Internet connection and video calls allow for more ways to communicate with others, such as long-distance family.
In order to maintain a healthy level of digital consumption, here are some suggestions to follow:
- Comply with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines, which were created in 2016. They are as follows:
- Children under the age of 18 months should have no screen time, except video calls.
- Between 18 months to 2 years, begin to introduce digital media in the form of quality programming, such as PBS Kids or Sesame Workshop. Make sure to watch this content with them.
- From ages 2 to 5, limit screen time to just one hour a day, and continue to watch quality programming.
- At age 6 and older, continue to limit media usage and device type, and ensure children are still getting the appropriate amount of sleep and physical activity.
- Utilize apps to monitor and control screen time. Apps exist that provide parents the ability to set limits on screen time, allowing them to easily set daily time limits to prevent over usage and block off certain times of the day where devices are essentially disabled, such as during homework time or at night. Creating these limits helps to create a balance in younger children’s daily activities.
- Set aside tech-free time. Ideas for this include no-phone meal times, not allowing your kids a device until after breakfast, or setting aside a reading hour in the afternoons.
- Create tech-free zones. Designating different areas around the house is a helpful way to limit screen usage. A great idea is not allowing screens into the bedroom. No TVs, tablets, video games, or phones creates a sanctuary kids can go to for a digital detox. Also, this will help maintain healthy sleep habits, as we know there is a connection between screen time, blue light, and poor sleep.
Find hobbies that don’t require technology. As easy as it is to give kids a tablet to entertain themselves, encourage them to find hobbies that don’t require a screen. Playing outside, reading books, crafting are all ways to engage and entertain kids without giving them a device.