The dopamine dilemma and pruning – Kids brains and screens
We all have been there. “Just one more show, Mom!” “Five more minutes, pleeeeeaase!”
We all have a certain Mom-sense that too much screen time isn’t good—for our kids or for us! We hate how our kids act after sitting on a screen for too long. We know how we feel when we endlessly scroll and get to bed too late.
So, let’s talk about the science behind our Mom-sense and why we crave screens. When our kids use a tablet or smartphone to watch a video or play a game, it stimulates a chemical in the brain to be released called dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that is released when we do pleasurable things, like go on a hike or enjoy a meal together as a family, and it motivates us to want to do these activities again. Dopamine is good and we couldn’t live without it. The problem is when too much dopamine is released. Too much dopamine is why there are addictions to things like gambling, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. These high dopamine levels are toxic to the brain, cause cravings and create agitation, anxiety and even anger when we don’t get them.
Another important factor in understanding the effects of screens on your child is a scientific term called pruning. Your child’s brain is constantly developing and changing based on the activities they do. What we do with our children really matters. In the first 3 years, hundreds of neural connections are made every day. After that, the brain continues to develop new connections but it also prunes connections that are not used. Literally—use it or lose it. Kids who are on screens instead of playing at the park, interacting with mom at the grocery store, talking with the family at the restaurant or listening to music in the car are losing those vital connections in the brain to help them become social, happy, well adjusted, functioning adults. In addition, the brain isn’t fully developed and mature until 25 years of age. This is why even our teenagers—as smart as they may be— still need parents!
In summary, too much dopamine from toxic screen use leads to addictive behaviors (and withdrawals when taken away) and too much screen time will prune away important neural connections that were formed in infancy. Next time we will talk about the solution and what you can do to avoid dopamine spikes and maintain all of those neural pathways that you worked so hard to form in your baby. For more information on the brain science and toxic screens head to ScreenStrong.org for more information.