Screen-time is at an all-time high. Often beginning in infanthood and toddlerhood, an ever-increasing amount of time is spent by kids on tablets, cellphones, television, or video games—at home, school, and everywhere in between. Although in moderation screen-time can have its benefits, it is clear that too much time on devices can exasperate worries and anxiety and negatively impact a child’s health.
An overuse of screen-time can lead to a reliance on entertainment and an unhealthy cycle of inactivity and impaired social relationships. Additionally, excessive screen-time, combined with a lack of creative play, fresh air, and exercise, can interfere with sleep quality and patterns. A number of studies have shown that sleep quality and quantity are essential for mood regulation—particularly for growing children. For older children, too much time on devices often leads to social comparisons, FOMO (fear of missing out or not measuring up), difficulty being in and enjoying the moment, and compulsive and addictive behaviors.
Excessive screen-time causes the brain to overproduce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is released in response to rewarding experiences. When kids spend too much time on screens, they are naturally spending less time doing other activities they might enjoy, like spending time outdoors under the sun or creating new experiences. This lack of activity leads to an underproduction of serotonin in the brain. Lower levels of serotonin can result in feelings of sadness, anxiety, and irritability.
While both dopamine and serotonin play important roles in mental health, an imbalance negatively impacts a child’s mental health. There is a clear connection between the negative impact of screen-time on mental health and the imbalance of these two key neurotransmitters. Therefore, it is important to limit screen-time while also encouraging children to participate in activities that promote the production of serotonin, such as playing in nature, exercising, and having fun around family and friends.
Fostering and valuing play time, getting outside, and experiencing nature from an early age lays the foundation for an active and healthy lifestyle and a balance of these important brain chemicals. Prominent researchers such as Andrew Huberman, PhD, a Stanford neurobiologist, have been able to use technology to support the known benefits of getting outside. For example, Dr. Huberman shares that just ten minutes of direct sunlight in the morning releases serotonin (a brain chemical known to produce happiness) and will improve your mood and help regulate sleep. How amazing! Not only does the sun brighten your mood, but stepping outside in the fresh air clears your lungs, boosts your immune system, and increases your energy and focus. The benefits are endless.
Through study after study, we continue to see the power of play and how giving children opportunities for unstructured play encourages them to explore, create, and discover. Unstructured or free play has been shown to boost cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.
But when kids are stuck in the unhealthy cycle of screen-use, they do not reap these benefits because their brains are telling them to keep using screens. With every video game reward, text alert, or “like” on social media, their brains are dropping dopamine. With each drop of dopamine, they quickly crave the next “fix.” Have you ever noticed how it’s such a battle getting kids off screens? This is why!
But when we limit screen use and encourage outdoor play from an early age, kids develop healthy habits that will become part of their everyday lives while also having the benefit of reducing stress and anxiety. Moreover, as kids practice their healthy habits, they grow confidence through exercising their creativity, taking healthy risks, developing sensory skills, and learning how to slow down and enjoy the moment.
Spending time in nature is something that is right at our fingertips, yet is often overlooked as a key factor in lowering worry, stress, and anxiety and creating joy. The more we can balance screen-time with time spent under the sun playing, the more we can help our kids grow happier and healthier brains and bodies!
For tips and ideas on how to create this balance, check out my blog on the Top 5 Tips for Getting Kids Outdoors