What Screen Time does to our Brains

These were requested by a reader; feel free to contact me on facebook (Karyn At Kloppenmum) if you want me to write about something in particular. If I can; I will.

I’m not going to get into the ‘moderation’ argument. It’s up to you what you do once you’ve read through these lists. I completely understand using screen time as a ‘what’s in it for me’ strategy when children are faced with challenges, and I know for some parents it’s the only time-out they get. And yes, we watch the tele. Nevertheless…

The Eye

  1. The fovea makes up 1% of the retina.
  2. Usually the fovea is meant to be used to receive information on which we are concentrating on intensely.
  3. The fovea, therefore, tries to send all possible information to the brain it can.
  4. The rest of the retina gives us peripheral vision.
  5. Peripheral vision is there to distract the brain, so it doesn’t become over-loaded from all the information the fovea is feeding it; and it is used to ensure we notice anything sneaking up on us.
  6. When we watch the screen, peripheral vision isn’t used at all.
  7. Pictures and words on the screen are made up of pixels. These are small segments of information, which have to keep moving in order to keep moving in order to appear solid.
  8. The eye keeps having to focus and refocus on the pixellated images.
  9. The brain assumes there is some kind of problem with our eyes and keeps trying to make corrections to the information it is receiving, but it can’t ever sort the problem out. This constant correcting process causes our brains stress.

Brain Reaction

  1. Brainwaves are given off at different frequencies to show what kind of activities our brains are involved with. The more complex the brainwaves the more our brains are being used and this is what they crave: we experience this when we are in the zone and children are naturally in this state when involved in old-fashioned, open-ended play.
  2. When we watch the screen alpha waves are given off. This usually shows our brain is in a state of deep relaxation, but the HUGE amounts of alpha waves given off show our brains are shutting down. They are over-whelmed. This is a similar state to that which we can get into if we are being mauled by a tiger – the brain assumes we are in mortal danger. It’s a pleasant place to be, but not where we are meant to be unless we are waiting for healing or death.
  3. When we watch the screen, theta waves are given off. Theta waves are usually given off when we are storing information in short-term memory for later processing and they are also released when we are drifting off to sleep. When we watch the screen the abundance of theta waves show there is no conscious thought happening at all. We’re in a state of daze. (Slack jaw and wide eyes.) The brain cannot keep up with the huge amount of data we are expecting it to manage.
  4. The fight/flight part of our brain automatically interprets flickering lights and loud noises as signs of danger. Pixellation is flickering.
  5. The constant stimulation of the fight/flight system while we watch the screen makes our brain release the stress hormone cortisol.

Automatic Replays and Stress reactions

  1. There are more psychiatric problems for those of us who live in noisy environments and the noisier the environment the less well children do academically. Electronic and mechanical noises not the noises our brains were built to deal with.
  2. We cannot turn off the impact of visual stimulus. Our brain constantly replays what it has seen in order to try to make sense of it.
  3. After 9/11, the more a person had watched re-runs of the events, the more likely they suffered psychologically. Regardless of if they had lost someone or lived close to the sites.
  4. People show the full impact of stress reactions after an event. Some children are often clingy, agitated, depressed, anxious, violent etc after they have been watching the screen. Sometimes they are just niggly and unpleasant to be with.


  1. Happy brain chemicals are usually released during the brain activities associated with alpha and theta waves.
  2. Any activity we do during which lots of alpha and theta waves are released, we want to do again and again. This is how addiction works, e.g. (simplistically) alcoholics usually emit  very low rates of alpha and theta waves.
  3. If a person cannot go without the screen for 48 hours, they are probably addicted. (My hand is up and waving.)
  4. The only way we can know if our children are or aren’t addicted to electronic entertainment is to remove it, including any battery run toys, for 48 hours.
  5. If they are addicted they will begin to show the same reaction as anyone going through withdrawal: denial, anger and bargaining are the first three stages.

The Positive Effects of Removing Screen Time (After Withdrawal)

  1. Fewer arguments between siblings.
  2. Fewer silly noises and baby talk.
  3. Less frenetic running about and other seemingly out of control behaviours.
  4. Better sleep patterns, and no Night Terrors.
  5. Less violence, bitchiness and general nastiness.
  6. Greater oral communication skills and more interesting conversations.
  7. Greater co-operation.
  8. Increased ability to play alone and to entertain themselves.
  9. Greater calm.
  10. Increasing willingness to do as told, when told.

Make of that what you will.  🙂


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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20 Responses to What Screen Time does to our Brains

  1. I might print this, and not say anything. My son had very little screen time until we got Netflix a few years ago. Now he has lots. I try to limit it, but I’m online (working on my book) so much, it’s hard to enforce stricter limits for him.

    • I am having the same problem, Sue. Our youngest is getting far more screen time (I would prefer NONE) because I am working so hard on the tantrum book. He starts kindy (pre-school) in August, so I’m going to use that natural transition time to get back to calm and normality. I don’t know how you get around the time pressure situation, tricky huh?

  2. Laura Weldon says:

    Enormously brilliant summary of research. The bright light of your brain continues to amaze me. Will be sharing!

    • Thanks Laura. I’ve been thinking about this whole thing of how I summarise the science, and I think it’s because my brain works best with the Keep It Simple Stupid idea – if I read something that is a paragraph long and full of big words I have to break it down into very small words and sentences in order to understand it!! Pleased to be able to clarify for people, if I can. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. Laura Weldon says:

    Oh, and if you’d add images to each of your posts I could more easily share them on Pinterest as well!

  4. I only ask because I’m going to need the information to make a valid argument against my LOVE TO ARGUE 11 year old son, and not to cause trouble: where’s the research? I need to see the research, because this is going to be dinner table conversation for a long time once I bring it up. And bring it up I will, because screen time does frizz out his brain, and I need the research to prove this to him. 🙂 Thanks!

  5. I downloaded it, and am trying to fit it on one page. It’s just 2 lines over, but I can’t find anything more to delete. (Happy to email you what I’ve done, Karyn, if you’d like to see it.)

    • No worries about emailing me, what you do with the information is totally up to you. Smaller font? 😉

      • Thanks, Karyn. I had other motives, too, though. I’ll post my version of your work on my (less prolific) blog, if that’s ok (with credit and links, of course), and anyone else who’d like a one-page version can come over there and recommend minor cuts. I might try to make it easier for a 10-year-old to read too.

        In addiction #4, I changed ‘our children’ to ‘we’. Part of my attempt to change the implied reader to be my son. (And I made other minor changes like that.)

        • All good, Sue. If you mention I have two books out this year, too?…. 😉

          WHY PEOPLE DRIVE YOU CRAZY: PART ONE, A FRESH LOOK AT TEMPERAMENT (due end of June or start of July at this rate) $7.40 US
          ALL ABOUT TANTRUMS: WHY WE HAVE THEM, HOW TO PREVENT THEM, WHAT TO DO WHEN THEY HAPPEN (Due out by Christmas) Not sure of price yet.

          Both will be sold on amazon and kindle versions will be available around three weeks after publication of the books.
          Great to have your support. 🙂

  6. Linette says:

    Thanks Karyn. So glad my kids don’t watch TV. I started reducing my screen time 2 years ago, and can really feel the effect if I have an evening when I do blob out in front of the telly 😉 Now, if I can just reduce time spend in front of the laptop….

  7. I’ve read a lot on television’s effects on children and haven’t seen anything this comprehensive in one spot. This is great. I may put a link to it on my blog– if my friends can tolerate Yet Another post on why we have to be so careful about media. It’s not just the content, it’s the activity in and of itself…

    • Yes and yes and yes and yes I think I went through a stage of only writing about the effects of electronics too. You’re right to point out it’s not just content but the physical act of watching the screen…says she who spends a lot of her day on her laptop!! Irony, that! 🙂

      • Here here–me too. I live where it rains a lot, so that’s part of my criteria– if it’s sunny, then the laptop gets put away and it’s time for a Vitamin D soak outside in the garden or out and about the neighborhood.

        • Yes, we’re heading toward our grey, grey sky months so I am getting outside as much as I can at the moment. My brain goes into a cotton-wool state when we have more than 3 or 4 days with no sunshine in a row. I try and respect my brain and body’s needs to slow down, but it is hard some winters.

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