Let’s first start by defining what electronic devices are. Electronic devices are smartphones, tablets, televisions, cinemas, video games, and computer games. Electronic devices have been around for the past 40 years, but the debate about their effects only started about 20 years ago. Since the pandemic in 2020, the usage of electronic devices has skyrocketed. Children spend up to 7 hours a day, on average, on some sort of electronic device, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. This varies in different countries, but the number is still very high. According to eMarketer, U.S adults spent about 8 hours a day on electronic devices in 2020 and it is thought that that number will increase in the year 2022.
I decided to talk about this subject because I see children and adolescents being affected more and more in classrooms and their daily lives. From North America to Europe to East Asia, studies reveal that anywhere from 68 to 95% of children, even toddlers under the age of 3, use electronic screens on a daily basis (Carson and Janssen, 2012). Studies conducted in Norway and the United States suggest more than 70% of teens are using mobile phones or computers an hour before bedtime (Hysing et al., 2015; Grandisar et al., 2013). In two U.S. studies, almost 20% of teens said their technology habits awaken them during the night – either because their phone rings (Grandisar et al., 2014) or because they feel compelled to check their social media accounts (Power et al., 2017).
In an Australian study, nearly half the teens said they used their mobile phones after bedtime, when they were supposed to be sleeping. Teens were being physically woken up due to texts or emails, or they were not able to sleep because of their expectations about receiving texts or social media messages (Gamble et al., 2014). However, a huge component of their inability to sleep came from the blue light that is emitted from their devices. Blue light is different to white light because its wavelengths range from 460-480 nanometers, opposed to white light which has 580 nanometers. This is the range of light that appears blue to our eyes, and it’s the range that can trigger alertness and decrease the production of the melatonin hormone which makes us drowsy, even when lighting levels are dim. Neurons in our retinas are tuned to respond to blue light. It sends a message to the brain: “Wake up, be alert. It’s daytime”. Studies show the younger one is, the more sleep disruption one will get with the same amount of exposure to this blue light.
Another component to sleep disruption is the content.. Jan Van den Bulck, a social scientist from Belgium, questioned thousands of school children. He found that TV content showed up frequently in nightmares for 33% of the children, and computer games were associated with nightmares in about 10% of boys and 5% of girls. Several studies state “that compared to kids who didn’t use devices before bedtime, kids who watched television or played video games slept, on average, 30 minutes less” (Fuller et al., 2015). Kids who used a mobile phone or computer before bedtime slept an hour less.
When a child sees violent images, it stays with them throughout the day. Even if they forget about it and continue their daily activities, those images create arousal in their nervous systems which might create anxiety and will manifest either through nightmares or delayed sleep. Across most studies, bedtime access to electronic devices is consistently linked with daytime sleepiness and is a key indicator of poor sleep quality. Sleep is extremely important for the development of children’s and teenager’s brains.
What can we do to prevent sleep disruption in children?
- Protect kids from violent or troubling media content – before bedtime and during the day. Put blocks on certain channels.
- Create an electronic “black out” period for at least an hour before bedtime.
- If you won’t (or can’t) stop using devices before bedtime, get yourself a blue light filter.
- Check your child’s room for night lights and other comforting objects that emit blue light.
- Use your executive power as an adult and parent and take the devices away from them during the night, an hour before bedtime.
Do electrical devices and or media cause aggression?
This has been debated for decades. This argument started in the United States after the Columbine shootings. The evidence is conclusive, despite minority views, for many researchers: exposure to media violence can increase aggressive thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. Media violence exposure includes television, movies, and video games.
Violent video games can desensitise people from seeing aggressive behaviour and decrease prosocial behaviours, such as helping another person and feeling empathy (the ability to understand others).
Desensitisation is the reduction of cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioural responses to a stimulus. It is an automatic and unconscious phenomenon often experienced in typical, everyday life experiences. The longer individuals are exposed to violent video games, the more likely they are to have aggressive behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. These effects have been seen in studies in both Eastern and Western countries. Although males spend more time than females playing violent video games, violent video game exposure can increase aggressive thoughts, behaviors, and feelings in both sexes.
Studies also showed that children and teenagers that play video games have a decrease in emotional self-regulation. Basically, children who find it difficult to control and express negative emotions, such as sadness or anger, in socially appropriate ways are more likely to have higher levels of reactive, relational, and self-directed aggression. You can see it in children acting out by throwing tantrums, hitting siblings or other children, breaking toys, bullying, not helping a peer if they are hurt and not finding issues in other violent behaviour.
This brings us to the second potential issue raised.
Do video games affect attention skills?
Let us first define what a low, moderate, and high use video game player is.Low video gamers use 0–60 min per week, moderate use 61–300 min, and high use was >300 min.
Video games are not all bad, there are positive aspects to them. There are some studies that suggest that action games can enhance certain visual attention skills (Franceschini et al., 2013). They may even help dyslexic children read. Vanessa Harrar and her colleagues have found that dyslexics have a particularly hard time switching attention from visual to auditory stimuli, which makes the standard approach to reading – seeing a letter and then imagining the sound it makes – very difficult. They think that action video games may help people practice switching back and forth. It seems that action video games can hone visual attention skills and help kids with dyslexia by improving reading ability. Does that mean that action games are beneficial for all sorts of attention skills?
What about paying attention to “talking heads?” Listening to a teacher in a classroom before she says something unexpected or interesting? This proactive sort of attention is crucial for learning and following directions at school. And it’s what many avid gamers seem to have trouble with. Researchers asked teachers to evaluate each child’s attention skills at 4 different points over the 13-month study. The results revealed a weak, but statistically significant, link between video games and teacher-reported attention problems. Kids who played more at the beginning of the study experienced increased attention problems at the end. This was true even after controlling for prior student attention problems. Teachers said the kids got worse over time.
It is still not clear why screen media may increase attention problems, but many researchers speculate that it may be due to rapid-pacing or the natural attention-grabbing aspects that television and video games use (Swing et al., 2010).
Can electronic devices become addictive or create an addiction?
It is important to first get a clear definition of addiction. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experience. Although it is not yet recognised by the American Medical Association as a diagnosable disorder, video game addiction is a very real problem for many people. According to the University of New Mexico, recent studies suggest that 6 to 15 percent of all gamers exhibit signs that could be characterised as addiction. Though this disorder can have significant consequences to those suffering from it, its signs and symptoms can sometimes be difficult to recognise.
There are two major types of video games and, therefore, two major types of video game addictions. Standard video games are generally designed to be played by a single player and involve a clear goal or mission, such as rescuing someone. The addiction in these games is often related to completing that mission, or beating a high score or preset standard.
The other type of video game addiction is associated with online multiplayer games. These games are played online with other people and are especially addictive because they generally have no end. Gamers with this type of addiction enjoy creating and temporarily becoming online characters. They often build relationships with other online players as an escape from reality. For some, this community may be the place where they feel they’re the most accepted.
How can we tell if a person is addicted?
DSM-IV-JV: Maladaptive behaviour as indicated by at least four of the following:
- As video game playing progresses, the person becomes more and more preoccupied with reliving past playing experiences, studying video game playing, planning the next opportunity to play, or thinking of ways to get money to play.
- They need to spend more and more money in order to achieve the desired excitement.
- They become restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop playing video games.
- They play video games as a way of escaping from problems or intolerable emotional states.
- After spending money on video game machines, they will often return another day in order to get a higher score (“score chasing”).
- They lie to family or friends to protect and conceal the extent of involvement with video game machines.
- They commit illegal/antisocial acts, such as misuse of school dinner/fare money, and theft from the home or elsewhere in order to finance video game playing.
- They fall out with family or close friends and jeopardise their education because of video game playing.
- They need another individual to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation.
Although an extensive amount of playing video/computer games can potentially cause harmful effects, certain video games can help with drug and alcohol addiction, neurodegenerative disorders, impulse control, trauma, and stress disorders. However, these are not your everyday, run-of-the-mill, video games. These are games designed specifically to target unwanted behaviours or cognitions. Games like the “Playmancer” are designed to increase self-control over emotions, behaviours, and decision-making (Fagudno et al., 2014).
Ways to prevent yourself from becoming addicted
Firstly, one must limit or eliminate the use of electronic devices and activities, such as smartphones, gaming, shopping, pornography, scary movies, and high-risk activities.
- Engage in regular physical exercise, especially something you love that does not endanger your brain, such as dancing, swimming, gym, or football.
- Meditate – meditating protects the brain while enhancing a sense of well-being.
- Make time to laugh—humour enhances the pleasure centres without wearing them out.
- Connect meaningful activities with pleasure, such as volunteering for activities you love.
- Start every day by thinking of three things for which you are grateful (a small dopamine drip) and one person you appreciate, then reach out through text or e-mail.
- Seek pleasure in the little things in your life, such as a walk with a friend, holding hands with your spouse, a great meal, or a meaningful church service.
- Eat foods that contain dopamine-boosting properties, such as chicken, turkey, seafood, almonds, pumpkin and sesame seeds, turmeric, oregano, vegetables (for folate and magnesium), olive oil, and green tea.
- Consider supplements to support dopamine, such as omega-3 fatty acids, and green tea extract.