Screentime & Mental Health: Reason to Worry?

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“Are video games making my kid hyper?” Parents around the world have fretted over this question ever since Atari launched Pong back in 1975. (Can you believe it?)

The problem goes way beyond hyper behaviour. According to child and adolescent psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, M.D., the symptoms of mental health problems in young people are strongly linked to interactive gaming and screentime. She believes video games are worse than we ever imagined in terms of their effect on the developing brain.

She points to recent neuro-imaging research that show structural and functional changes in grey matter in the brains of internet addicted patients. All screen activities, but particularly interactive games, lead to a rise in dopamine levels in the brain. She explains on her blog, “Many psychiatric disorders are dopamine-related, including ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, tic disorder, mood disorders, stuttering, and even schizophrenia.”

In her years of practice, she has worked with hundreds of young people who presented with a common set of symptoms:

  • Impulsivity
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty learning
  • Emotional dysregulation
  • Mood problems (low or labile)
  • Disorganised behaviour
  • Low tolerance to frustration
  • Defiance
  • Sleep problems
  • Poor short-term memory

Many of these symptoms overlap common but serious diagnoses, particularly ADHD and childhood bipolar disorder. Dr Dunckley points out that these same symptoms occur in children who game excessively or who have inordinate screentime. The frequency of the presentation has led her to conceptualise an alternative diagnosis she calls Electronic Screen Disorder.

Both ADHD and childhood bipolar disorder are conditions that are commonly treated with heavy-duty psychotropic medications, many of which come with serious side-effects. She reports that symptoms of psychosis and OCD (and a range of other issues) can be triggered by “electronic over-stimulation.”

Dr Dunckley believes misdiagnosis for these problems is frequent, and she worries that many young people are on medications when what they really need is a month-long media fast.

Let’s pause here and let that soak in.

She believes that before a correct diagnosis can be made, the child or teen needs to have a complete break from all non-educational screen activities. If symptoms persist after the media fast, then she pursues a psychiatric diagnosis.

In her experience, some of the patients “recover” enough to return to strictly limited gaming while others regress as soon as they play.

Dr Dunckley finds that many parents resist the idea of imposing a media fast. It seems that some do not want to consider a possible link between gaming and mental illness. Children and teens rarely willingly hand over their beloved devices, so perhaps these parents are hoping to avoid the battle that they know will follow.

I like what Dr Dunckley says: “You will never regret removing video games and computer use, but you may sorely regret leaving them in place.”

She believes all young people (whether or not they have a problem with technology) benefit from a regular break from interactive media. The good results include improved mood, more relaxed attitude, deeper sleep, and better all-round functioning.

For more complete information, visit Dr Dunckley’s website here. You can read her Mental Wealth articles on Psychology Today. 

Since its earliest days, e-Quipped has promoted media fasting. Watch this space as e-Quipped continues its newest series, #TakeBackScreetime. (This is Post #2) We’ll look at health information (like this) and share tried-and-true tips from families who are working out how to manage technology in a healthy way.

Screens are here to stay. The task-at-hand is training users–young and old–in healthy, balanced use.

Take Action Today!

After arming yourself with information and a plan, why not do something outside with your kids? Dig out the Frisbee and take them to the park.


Image Credit: Rainy Days by Megan Hemphill (Prairie & Co.)’s Photostream, CC

Disclaimer: The author of this post is not a doctor. Medical advice should be sought from appropriately qualified medical professionals.