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Children Thrive When ScreenTime Health Effects: Interview With Psychiatrist Dr. Dunkley

Mar 19, 2020


Dr. Victoria Dunckley has published the book “Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time”.

According to Dr. Victoria Dunckley

“Because electronic screen media is unnaturally intense in terms of sensory, cognitive, and psychological input–designed to keep the user engaged–it tends to overstimulate nervous system. The brain interprets all this stimulating input as a form of stress.  This in turn triggers fight-or-flight reactions and a high state of arousal, making it difficult to wind down and sleep deeply.

Each time a child picks up a screen device, not one but many changes occur in the brain that lead to overstimulation and hyperarousal.  Reward pathways are strongly activated which eventually become desensitized. Large amounts of dopamine are released. Blue-toned light (inherent to screens) desynchonizes the body clock and suppresses melatonin, the sleep signal.  Vivid colors and rapid changes in movement or page loads overwhelm the visual system.  Enormous amounts of information are taken in and processed, draining mental reserves and fracturing attention. Media multi-tasking and interactivity raise arousal and stress levels. Manmade radiation from both the device and from wireless communications perturb brain waves.

Over time, these changes lead to chronic stress, resulting in blood flow shifting from the more developed part of the brain (frontal lobe) to the more primitive parts of the brain. Because the frontal lobe governs emotional regulation, attention, creativity, and social behavior, any of these areas can become impaired.  Chronic stress also raises cortisol levels, which complicates frontal lobe functioning even further.  High cortisol impairs the hippocampus (needed for memory), disturbs sleep, and eventually causes atrophy (shrinkage) of the brain.  (It also causes weight gain and high blood sugar.)

When the changes become significant enough to impact frontal lobe functioning–or in other words how the child feels, thinks, behaves, or socializes–on a day-to-day basis, this is what I call Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS).

Because of the impact on the frontal lobe and other parts of the brain and body, Electronic Screen Syndrome can mimic or exacerbate virtually any psychiatric disorder.  This phenomenon has lead to rampant misdiagnosis, inappropriate use of medication, and misuse of mental health and education resources.   Medications, in turn, often have their own host of both short and long term side effects.  Children who are aggressive are often medicated, because of safety issues.  Children with attention issues are also often medicated, because they’re failing in school. You can see how misdiagnosis is not a road you want to go down with your child! Sometimes medications are needed and helpful, but should always be minimized.

Contrary to popular belief, these dysregulating effects are much more potent with interactive screen-time, or the kind inherent to activities like gaming, internet use, texting, social media, iPad use, and so on. As such, even so-called “educational” screen-time causes overstimulation, which is a major reason why so many kids are having problems; parents mistakenly believe that educational video games and apps are harmless. And once the nervous system is “revved up,” that state tends to self-perpetuate. Thus, simply moderating screen use often fails.”

“Over the past decade, I’ve prescribed the Reset Program–a strict and extended “electronic fast”–for more than 500 children, teens, and young adults who’d failed to respond to conventional treatment alone.” 

Please visit Dr. Victoria Dunkley’s website to learn more. 

Dr. Dunkley is also on the advisory Board of  Physicians for Safe Technology,   Children’s Screen Time Action Network,   and Families Managing Media.

“Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time” by Dr. Victoria Dunckley


More Books andResources about Children and Screens

The Big Disconnect, by Dr. Catherine Steiner Adair

Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids-and How to Break the Trance by Nicholas Kardaras

Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age by Dr. Richard Freed

Virtual Child by Chris Rowan

Ten Steps to Successfully Unplug Children from Technology by Cris Rowan

Technology Use Guidelines for children and youth  developed by Cris Rowan pediatric occupational therapist