Close to Home: Putting the genie back in the bottle

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One of the greatest challenges parents and teachers face is what is coming to be known as the “electronic screen syndrome,” the collective effect electronics are having on your student’s learning brain.

Today’s students, age 5 to 15, spend an average of 61/2 hours a day in front of a screen, compared with around three hours a day in 1995, according to market research firm Child Wise.

Teenage boys spend the longest, with an average of eight hours. Eight-year-old girls spend the least, but that’s still 31/2 hours, according to the studies. Screen time is made up of time spent watching TV, playing video games and using a mobile phone, computer or tablet.

The detrimental effects of electronic screen syndrome on the child’s brain with respect to sleep, diet, family dynamics, behavior and school performance have been well established. An excellent book, “Reset You Child’s Brain,” explores these detrimental effects and offers solutions on how to control your student’s use of electronics.

For instance, electronic screen syndrome causes a hyper arousal of your child’s sensitive nervous system that can become a pattern, creating dysfunction in school, at home or with social relationships. A lengthy list of symptoms often reflects chronic stress and/or sleep deprivation. It includes irritability, depression, changing moods, tantrums, lower frustration points, poor self-regulation, disorganized behavior, oppositional-defiant behaviors, poor sportsmanship, social immaturity, poor eye contact, insomnia, learning difficulties, short-term memory, tics and stuttering. Further, ESS can exacerbate psychiatric, neurological, behavioral and learning disorders and thus help to account for the higher incidence of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. (Over the past 10 years, the incidence of childhood ADHD has increased 50 percent).

Moreover, research shows that certain populations are particularly affected by ESS. More vulnerable are boys, younger children and kids with pre-existing psychological conditions or developmental learning and/or behavior disorders. However, a problematic family history, youthful initial exposure to screen time and high amounts of total lifetime exposure also have been linked as precursors to the above symptoms.

Victoria Dunckley, a recognized integrative child psychiatrist and author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain,” recommends that negative symptoms can improve or be resolved with what she describes as electronic fasting. That is, the strict removal of electronics for several weeks. She describes a three-week or longer fast, which can have a positive effect on the child’s brain.

For example, within days the child’s initial negative reaction play — tearfulness, anger, arguing and so on — subsides. Also, the child’s mood, attitude and compliance begin to improve. The child begins to sleep better and may go to bed earlier.

Within weeks, meltdowns become less frequent or less severe, or both. The child’s attention improves, sometimes dramatically, and the child stays on task more easily. Within months, grades may markedly improve. Meltdowns diminish further and may resolve completely, and mood stabilizes further. The child progresses more quickly when learning math and reading.

The beauty of electronic fasting is that the brain is moved from that surge-and-deplete cycle to one of organization and self-regulation.

David Sortino of Graton is director of The Neurofeedback Institute. Email him at

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