“He has developed eye and neck tics,” I told the doctor.
After discussing the issue in more depth, the pediatrician felt the tics (defined as a habitual spasmodic contraction of the muscles, most often in the face) were caused by playing video games.
“Really? Video game play can cause physical tics?” I asked. I was shocked to learn this information.
The doctor explained to me that the video games cause over stimulation of the brain. So when my son isn’t playing video games, his brain craves this stimulation, which can cause the tics and other problems. He recommended no video games or electronic use for three weeks to see if it would make a difference.
I was nervous about how my son would respond, but I think because the doctor recommended it, he didn’t object. During the three weeks without the video games I noticed a decline in the tics, but I also became aware of other issues. I didn’t realize how little he was interacting with family or friends until he no longer was involved with electronics. Instead of isolating himself, he was now socializing with others. In addition, he was less irritable and seemed happier.
After this experience I researched the negative effects of video game and electronic use. Dr. Dunckley’s book, “Reset Your Child’s Brain”, discusses these issues. In her book, she defines electronic screen syndrome (ESS) as a child who experiences symptoms of hyperarousal that cause impairment in some aspect of the child’s life. These behaviors can mimic other disorders such as the tics, ADHD or Bipolar.
It is important to note it is not the amount of time a child uses the devices or the type of video games played, but rather how the child responds to using the electronics. Every child is different and can be affected differently from video game play. For example, my son is not allowed to play violent video games because he will display symptoms of ESS.
Dr. Dunkley identifies the following six negative effects of playing video games:
Overstimulation of the Sensory System
When a child plays video games, overstimulating messages are sent to the nervous system due to the screen visual of bright colors and quick movements. This enables the body’s flight or fight response, creating a hyperarousal state. When the child isn’t playing video games, the brain experiences sensory deprivation, which can lead to irritability. This can cause children to experience seizures, tics and migraines.
Research by Rowan found repeated intense over-simulation of the brain can cause a child to pay attention to everything, which in turn makes it difficult to focus on one activity. While the child is using technology, the tactile systems are under-stimulated and the visual and auditory sensory systems are over-stimulated, creating an imbalance. This can lead to neurological development issues.
The brain chemical dopamine is released when a child plays video games. The more a child likes a game, the more dopamine is released, causing the child to want to continue playing. A study conducted at Iowa State University found one in ten gamers studied could be defined as pathological players using standards for pathological gambling (the general population uses the word addiction). Research by Sun et al. used MRIs and found that when gamers play, their brains illuminate in the same manner as someone who is addicted to drugs.
Artificial blue light is emitted from electronic screens. This type of light causes the brain to suppress the hormone melatonin which your body needs to sleep.
A study conducted at Harvard University found exposure to blue light suppressed melatonin twice as long as green light which shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours). Research by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found gamers who played for 7 hours or more experienced both poor and less sleep than non-gamers.
NIH recommends school-age children and teens should sleep for 9-10 hours per night. Sleep disruptions or lacking the proper amount of sleep increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Receiving the proper amount of sleep promotes appropriate growth and development, improves social interactions and increases immunity against diseases.
Impaired Social Interactions
Playing video games tends to be an isolating activity. When a child is playing video games they are missing out on interacting socially with both friends and family. These social interactions are important in developing social skills and relationships. Research by Kraut et al found increased use of technology led to a decline in social interactions and an increase in depression.
Poor Sense of Time
Video game play has been linked to time distortion in players. Rau et al. found that gamers have difficulty gauging how much time they actually spent playing, and often required outside intervention by a person to stop playing. A poor sense of time perception also creates issues with time management, which could cause the child to be late.
Lack of sleep combined with the overstimulated sensory system can lead to irritability, mood swings and aggression. Dr. Dunckley became interested in the negative effects of electronic use when she was working with children diagnosed with mental health issues. She then had a colleague ask her for help with her son. He had been seen by several psychiatrists and was first diagnosed with ADHD, then with autism and finally with bipolar disorder. Dr. Dunckley recommended removing all electronics for three weeks. After the electronic fast the child’s behaviors improved significantly and he weaned off all medications. This example demonstrates how ESS can mimic mood disorders such as bipolar.
Should A Child with ESS Play Video Games?
Dr. Dunckley recommends limiting the amount of exposure to electronics. Our doctor suggested one hour per day on the weekends only. Before I researched this topic, I didn’t know about the negative effects of video game use or how it could affect children differently. I thought it was comparable to watching television. Now that I’m informed, we have adhered to the doctor’s advice and my son no longer experiences tics. More importantly, he is socializing more with family and friends.
This article was originally published on Parent.co.