Resources for Recovering Resilience: Reset Your Child’s Brain

I’ve been known to go on a “digital rant” from time to time, about the potentially devastating impact of too much screen time – smart phones, laptops, iPads, video games – on the brain and on relationships. American adults now spend 30% of their waking time on digital devices; teenagers up to 50%. The decrease in face-to-face engagement is leading to decreased empathy and ability to tolerate “messy” emotions, boredom, or solitude. The current issue of Scientific American Mind reports that 50% of American adults report having zero close friendships. Zero.

[I will include this rant again in my Cape Cod Institute workshop for clinicians June 27-July 1, 2106.]

My publisher at New World Library, Jason Gardner, gave me a copy last week of Reset Your Child’s Brain: End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time by integrative psychiatrist Victoria l. Dunckley, M.D.

Wow.

A clear, concise, compelling overview of the impact of too much screen time on children’s vulnerable developing brains – irritating the brain and over-stimulating the nervous system.

And a straight-forward 4-week program to help parents help their children go on a structured “electronic fast” to reverse the effects of Electronic Screen Syndrome. For any kids, really, but researched on kids diagnosed – often mis-diagnosed – with autism, ADD, or bi-polar disorder.

Another wow.

I plan to write the July 2016 e-newsletter on the book when I’ve had a chance to digest and synthesize the concepts, data, and tools offered. (With a little pride that my publisher took the gamble and published this rigorously documented, cutting-edge and highly effective program.) This post, with permission of the publisher, is a preview of more to come.

From the introduction to Reset Your Child’s Brain:

Children aged two to six now spend two to four hours a day screen-bound – during a period in their lives when sufficient healthy play is critical to normal development. Computer training in early-years education – including in preschool – has become commonplace, despite lack of long-term data on learning and development. According to a large-scale survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2010, children ages eight to eighteen now spend an average of nearly seven and a half hours a day in front of a screen – a 20 percent increase from just five years earlier.

[And…] In a mere ten-year span from 1994 to 2003, the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children increased forty-fold. Childhood psychiatric disorders such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), autism spectrum disorders, and tic disorders are on the rise. Between 2002 and 2005, ADHD medication prescriptions rose by 40 percent. Mental illness is now the number one reason for disability filings for children, representing half of all claims filed in 2012, compared to just 5 to 6 percent of claims twenty years prior.

Now consider that this rise in childhood psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues has increased in lockstep with the insidious growth of electronic-screen exposure in daily life. Not only are children exposed to ever-increasing amounts of screen-time at home and in school, but exposure is beginning at ever-younger ages.

Handheld and mobile devices account for most of the more recent growth. These devices compound toxicity due to the fact that they are held closer to the eyes and body, are used more frequently throughout the day, and tend to be used during activities that previously facilitated conversation (such as riding in the car and eating out). From 2005 to 2009, cell phone ownership among children nearly doubled; about one-third of ten-year-olds now have their own mobile phone. Two thirds of American teens now own cell phones, and 70 percent own an iPad, tablet, or similar device with Internet capability. According to a 2010 Nielsen report, U.S. teens text over four thousand times a month, or about 130 times a day.

Many youngsters exhibit ill-defined but disruptive symptoms that baffle clinicians, teachers, and parents alike – meltdowns, falling grades, or loss of friendships – leading to premature or wrong diagnoses in a misguided attempt to name the problem and take action. In a word, these children are dysregulated – that is, they have trouble modulating their emotional responses and arousal levels when stressed.

But what if [these] disorders characterized by dysregulation is not some mysterious new plague, but environmentally related? If we ask ourselves, “What has been the biggest change in our children’s environment compared to only one generation ago?” the answer is not gluten, pesticides, plastics, or food dye (all offenders of mental health, but they do not constitute the biggest chance in one generation) but the advent of the Internet, cell phones, and wireless communication. The constant bombardment from electronic screen devices [may be causing] the young brain to short-circuit.

[For the children researched] there was something about playing video games that seemed to exacerbate both neurological and psychological symptoms by putting the brain and body into overdrive. Although my initial observations and efforts focused specifically on video games, over time it became apparent that fight-or-flight reactions occurred with other interactive screen devices as well, such as laptops and smartphones. Eventually, I found these effects were noticeable not just in children with major psychiatric disturbances, but also in children with “plain-old” ADHD symptoms. Ultimately, I realized even “typical” children (without any diagnoses) could experience less extreme but nonetheless disruptive symptoms – which meant it wasn’t just highly sensitive children or those with psychiatric disorders who were vulnerable to adverse effects, but potentially any child.

[The book then presents a detailed, step-by-step to help parents minimize and reverse the harmful effects of electronic screen syndrome on their children.]

Based on utilizing a strict electronic fast in over five hundred children, teens, and young adults, and observing the changes during and following the fast, I have found that in children with diagnosed psychiatric disorders, about 80 percent will show marked improvement (symptom reduction of at least 50 percent) across all psychiatric symptom and diagnostic categories. In children without an underlying disorder, the percentage may be even higher, and of those who respond positively, about half will show a complete resolution of symptoms (that is, cessation of tantrums, chronic irritability, poor focus, and so on), and the other half will show marked improvement. You can expect to see a happier child with better focus and organization, improved compliance, and more mature social interactions. Beyond relief from the worst aspects of ESS, [there can be] optimization of brain, mind, and social development.

[This plan to reset a child’s brain to end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills is what I plan to present in the July 2016 e-newsletter. Stay tuned.]