Column: The Focused Student: Screen time and learning


Is it time for a timeout on screen time for your student?

Research tells us that students spend an average of seven hours a day staring at the screen of one electronic device or another — cellphone, computer, tablet and yes, sometimes even good old-fashioned television. Some of this is school-related work, some is entertainment and some is social engagement.

While many parents have a vague sense that this much screen time might not be good due to social isolation and other factors, we are now becoming aware these digital devices can actually cause biological changes in the brains of users. Screens, it turns out, are not just one-for-one substitutes for books.

Research suggests that screen time, even minimal screen time, creates biological changes in the brain that result in dysregulation of body systems, according tp Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain.” In fact, this phenomenon has been given a name: electronic screen syndrome, or ESS. The screen, and games in particular, create a fight-or-flight response in the brain. When it was a saber tooth tiger in the wild, such a response was of short duration and had a distinct, lifesaving advantage. In modern society, sustaining such a response for seven hours by playing “Grand Theft Auto” is distinctly disadvantageous.

The light, sounds and action of video games and other digital entertainment elicits the flight-or-fight response even though the threat is not real. It could be an action game on the console or a video lesson in a classroom. Both can produce a rapid heartbeat, hyper-focus of the brain, higher blood pressure, dilation of the eyes and elevated blood sugar levels — higher levels with action videos and slightly less intensity with more passive screens. We can expect that as virtual reality becomes more available, such responses will be heightened and sustained.

How many times do we look at our phones for news, email or to count the steps we have taken? Many young people are nearly obsessed with social media and games. Everyone’s biology is a little different, so screen time may not have the same effect on one person as compared to another, but long-term characteristics of excessive screen time can be mood changes, anxiety, lower cognition levels, irritability, depression, bizarre temper tantrums, tics, poor social skills and poor executive functioning, to name a few.

Disturbed biorhythms from the screen lights affect sleep patterns by limiting melatonin levels. As a result, the normal sleep pattern is disrupted and essential deep sleep is foregone. Even with sufficient hours, your student will awake feeling tired. Giving a student an extra half hour or hour to sleep is negated if they are on a screen doing homework, playing video games or texting friends before going to bed. The brain doesn’t work well when tired, and less learning takes place. Studies show that poor sleep from video games, texting or even watching TV late at night results in poor cognitive function the next day, manifesting as poor memory, less attentiveness and moodiness. Test scores go down.

There is more to this story, and we’ll discuss that next month. For now, try taking an inventory of how much time your child/student spends using a screen (smartphone, monitor, smart screen, or game console) for whatever reason. “Good” or “bad” uses — the biological impact is the same. Then check it against how much time is spent in physical activity such as sports and sports programs, walking, playing or physically interacting with others.

You might be surprised.

ROBERT FRANK is the executive director of the Hillside School and Learning Center in La Cañada. He holds a master’s of science degree in special education and has more than 40 years of teaching experience. His column appears on the last Thursday of each month. He can be reached at