The Effects Of Screen Time On Brain And Eye Development

A few weeks ago, I gave a workshop about balancing screen time time activities with off line activities. And while everyone embraced the concept, and honestly felt a sense of relief hearing about it, several moms just like you had a nagging feeling in the back of their minds that there could be another issue here, a physical one.

What about the effects of the screen on brain development?

I also wondered about the effects of the screen on brain and eye development. I've read and heard mixed information.

That "mixed information" part is so very important and relatable; there's a lot of information out there and it can be hard to wade through and decide what you need to hold onto and actually do something about!

You just don't want to miss anything important and you want to make sure that you're doing the absolute best that you can for your child as you both muddle through this new terrain. The truth is that a lot of the information out there has validity to it and you shouldn't ignore it.

In this article I'm going to share with you exactly how I wade through the information, how I decide what to do with it, and for this specific topic of the physical effects of screen time, what I actually do with the information when it comes to my own kids.

By now you probably know that I'm not going to tell you that screens are bad and to keep your child off of them. This is just not realistic and I actually think that doing so is detrimental to your child, because if you're ignoring the reality of what your child is doing online, then you're obviously not teaching her what she needs to know about the online world!

I also think that there's so much value in making your decisions based on reality. As in, are you planning on making your family completely screen-free? No phones, no computers, no movies, no emails? If so, then this article is not for you.

But if you're not planning on doing this, then you need reliable information about the effects of screen time and a doable action plan for what to do with this information. That, I can help you with.


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Because not going 100% screen-free is not the same thing as not paying attention to the very real physical effects of spending time in front of a screen, here's what I did when these important questions were brought up.

After the workshop ended, I immediately started googling the topic of the effects of screen time on brain and eye development. After reading a few of the articles, I had to stop because the information was either highly clinical, overly scare-tactic focused, or both.

So I did something different instead.

I reached out to my children's pediatrician and my father in law, who is a general practitioner, and I asked them what they thought. I did this for two reasons. The first is that they're obviously trained to understand the clinical side of things. And the second is that I trust their practical and pragmatic lines of thinking. (And another reason, but one that might not mean as much to you as the first two, is that I know that they love my kids and would only share the very best advice with me when it comes to their care!)

Before I dig into what I learned from them as well as the article and what all of this information means to you, I want to share a story with you from when my kids were babies. We've been seeing our pediatrician for this long! With our first baby especially, we held pretty true to the "no screens" rules of parenting. This became trickier with my younger two as my oldest was definitely old enough to watch a television show by the time that they were around and the TV was definitely on at times while they were babies. 

But besides this fact, what all three of my kids also had was a little star in their crib that showed lovely baby type scenes like sheep, moons, and stars and sang "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to them when they turned it on and off. All three of them were madly in love with this device and, honestly, my husband and I were, too, because they each played with it independently for a few minutes in their cribs before they called us to come get them. And those coveted extra minutes of sleep were very welcome!

But one day I realized that this was just a screen, wasn't it?

Yes, I saw the differences between the sweet "Twinkles" as my kids called it, and a TV show, but it was still moving images, it was still a distraction, and it was still something to stare at and not interact with.

So at my daughter's well check visit, I asked our pediatrician about it and here's what she did: She laughed. Not in a mean way, but in a realization way. It absolutely was a screen, but no one was writing articles about the effects of "Twinkles" on babies' brains or eyes. 

This was eleven or so years ago now, but what she said next was very similar to what she told me about the effects of screens on children's brain and eyes: It is something to be aware of, not something to over-worry about.

Our pediatrician could have easily scared us into throwing away “Twinkles”; but she didn’t do that. She gave us tips to watch for how much time our kids were playing with the toy in their crib, how it was affecting them, and what else they did with their time. And I could easily scare you into wanting to turn into a no-screens family. Plenty of articles will do that, but this isn’t one of them.

Because the truth is that screen time isn't going anywhere.

If anything, it's becoming more prominent and a bigger part of your child's life as more schools are implementing one-to-one device to children ratios (one device per student), homework is due via the computer, and grades are checked and teachers are communicated with via the Internet. 

So this kind of pragmatism is the key to all things digital parenting. You have to learn what you can and implement the best ways possible to teach your child how to maneuver technology given what you know. This is why I wrote my flagship course Raise Your Digital Kid™; it's so important to stay on top of these things so that you can meet your child right where she's at and teach her what she really needs to know!

Here is the process that I use to stay informed:

  1. I read articles about the topic.
  2. I ask trusted experts in the field who have studied the information for their profession. Sometimes, I also reach out to peers to ask for their personal thoughts and experiences.
  3. I connect to what I've learned in both arenas based on two things: how does what I'm learning from both sources impact and relate to my own life and experiences and what realistic changes can I make.
  4. I distill the information, make it my own, and act on it in a pragmatic and effective way.

Note that I spend equal time in each "section." The idea is to learn and act, not get lost in any one form of information!

There is so much information to wade through online. It is so important to learn how to distill it all into something meaningful that we can use rather than just buying into everything that we read or hear online! This is a great process to use and to teach our children to use as well. Read what you can; Ask someone who has firsthand experience with it; Connect the information to your own life and how you can use it; Distill it or make it your own. This specific article is about how to wade through the information about the effects of screen time on brain and eye development, but this process works for anything and it is an important skill to learn and to teach.

This line of learning and thinking makes so much sense and you can use it to guide how you teach your own child to monitor the effects of her screen time today.

So that's what we're going to dig into next.

There are both physical and mental cues that your body gives you when you've had enough screen time. Your goal is to become super-aware of these cues and to have an action-plan for what to do when you first feel them.

So this isn't about setting arbitrary time limits on your child's screen time—below I'll get into why I really don't believe in these. This is about teaching your child how to self monitor and self regulate her screen time. Kids who learn how to do this will not fall prey to Internet addiction or the negative side-effects that come with too much screen time.

And parents who teach these kinds of things when your children are very young, won't fall prey to mad googling or unpractical rule enforcement when your children are a bit older.

If you're interested in learning more about the topic of screen time balance, my Balanced Screen Time Road Map™ is tailor made for you. You can learn more about it by clicking right here.

A few of the physical cues that your body has had enough screen time include:

  • Back ache
  • Shoulder ache
  • Headache
  • Eye strain
  • Eye dryness
  • Tension in the neck
  • Sore muscles

Do you notice how many times "ache" shows up in this list? Your body literally hurts from too much sitting in the same position! Because so much of my work is done online, I've learned to pay attention to when I feel any one of these physical effects of screen time, and to take a sitting and screen time break when I do.

For me, a screen time break may look like one of these ideas:

  • Taking a walk
  • Stretching
  • Exercising
  • Drinking water
  • Doing a chore
  • Standing to work

The physical cues that your child will feel from extended sitting and screen use are exactly the same ones that you will feel and the breaks that she can take are actually very similar!

When I shared this information with my own children, they came up with some great ideas for breaks they could take including playing outside, jumping on the trampoline, and having a dance party. I (gently) suggested doing a chore or doing something helpful as well; they didn't necessarily jump at these ideas, but they didn't cross them off of the list either.

One thing to note is that there are also mental or emotional cues that your body gives you when you need a screen-time break. These include:

  • Lack of focus
  • Grumpiness
  • Sloppy or unclear thinking
  • Inefficiency
  • Inability to pull away from what you're doing
  • Not enjoying what you're doing (Note: These last two often come together and are a great clue that it's time for a break!)

So your action steps are:

  1. Share the physical and mental effects of screen time with your child.
  2. Ensure that she understands how to recognize these when she's feeling them.
  3. Specifically teach your child what to do if she feels any of these effects.
  4. By specifically, I mean write down what the choices are. These are like directions to be followed.
  5. Model this behavior for your child.
  6. Monitor how she does with this.
  7. Step in and reteach this skill as necessary.

This sequence is so important for three reasons.

First, it isn't easy to learn and it will take some practice and your child will need your help with it.

Second, screen time is here to stay and you absolutely have to teach your child how to use it in a physically and mentally healthy way.

And third, like all things Digital Ed related, this isn't a one-time conversation.

You need to have a pulse on our child's screen time habits because how she interacts with and experiences screens today is definitely going to look different in two weeks, two months, and two years. You have to stay on top of these things if you want to remain relevant and effective!

Now, I mentioned above that arbitrary screen time limits don't work. Here's why.

My husband used to explain to me that these didn't work for video games because oftentimes as soon as you get into a game (educational or not), the time limit would end and you'd never be able to get to the next thinking, building, strategy, and yes, game, level. You'd just start over each time and repeat what you'd done before. This doesn't make sense at all, does it?

Not only that, but this cycle creates the obsession of your child wanting to get back to her game or her app because she never gets to finish what she's started!

Another important aspect of this is that different screen-based activities use different skills. As in, if your child takes a half hour to type out the grocery list in a Note on your phone or to do their homework online, has she reached her screen time limit? This isn't pragmatic to the way every day life works. When screen time limit suggestions were made years ago, the way you used your screens was different than the way your child uses hers and you need to change with the times in order for your rules to make sense and to be effective.

I'm not undervaluing any of this (at all!). If you want our child to reap the benefits of technology, you actually have to let her use it. But there's more to this.

When you set arbitrary rules, you miss out on actually teaching your child what she needs to know and you miss out on teaching her important things like self-regulation and listening to her body’s clues. As we discussed in this article, these skills are so important and necessary as screens remain a big part of all of our lives. If you want to teach your child how to be a balanced and healthy screen time user, directly teaching her how to do so will trump arbitrary rules every single time.

Main Takeaways

  • There are physical and emotional or mental cues to let toy know that you need to take a break from your screen.
  • Creating the habit of listening to these cues and acting on what you're feeling is key.
  • "Acting on it" means taking a meaningful break that includes movement.
  • Arbitrary screen time limits don't work because they aren't pragmatic.
  • You need to teach your child how to have healthy screen time habits.
  • For most children, these skills won't just develop naturally; they have to be taught.

You can be the one to teach your child all of the above! Start right here by clicking below to download your free checklist and sharing it with your child!

AUTHOR: GALIT BREEN

Hi, I'm Galit. (*My name is pronounced guh-leet + means little waves, like in the ocean.) I give you the tools you need to let your kids benefit from the amazing things the online world has to offer them and create a popsicle dripping, chapter book reading (in one sitting!), leaf crunching childhood that they deserve. Welcome, I'm so glad you're here. What can you expect from me? I spill it all right here.

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