Too much time tapping away on an iPad, iPhone or similar screen — particularly around bedtime — can have a big impact on a child's mental well-being, says psychologist and parenting columnist Kim Knull.
Unlike the stupor induced by too much TV, interactive technology — think emailing, texting, gaming — actually increases stress levels and irritability, affects sleep cycles and hurts social interaction, she said.
"It really fractures our attention and depletes mental reserves in children."
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The biggest problem, said Knull, is when kids (or parents) are playing on screens immediately before bed time.
"Even a few minutes of playing on your iPad or iPhone before bed actually delays your melatonin release, so of course that's going to impact a person's mood simply from a sleep deprivation perspective."
Having a lit screen in the bedroom is also a problem. Knull said the "light at night" effect — basically, having a lit-up screen in the bedroom — has been linked to depression and poor sleep quality.
To limit the negative impact, Knull has two simple rules: "No technology in the bedroom and not within two hours before bedtime."
Interactive screen use can also impact brain chemistry, messing with how a person experiences pleasure.
"Screen time desensitizes the brain's reward system," Knull said. "What that means is, there's too much dopamine that's being released in our brains, and these rewards pathways are then overused.
"It actually takes more stimulation to feel happy in your regular day-to-day life, because we're using technology so much."
Because of the chemical reliance that can develop, children can become literally addicted to their screens.
"So, you are going to find that they are going to have a strong reaction to limiting the use that they've had."
As a first step, Knull recommends parents make incremental adjustments to the amount of time children are allowed to use the devices.
She also recommends setting a timer to help draw the line.
"When it dings, that's it. You have one more minute and you have to get off."
When not in use, Knull said parents should physically remove screen devices and put them in a safe place where they can't be accessed.
Depending on age, a child or teen may display a number of red-flag behaviours as the result of too much screen time.
"This will be a time of change and flux, so there will be some new patterns in moods that you're noticing with your teen … but if something's significantly impacting your life, then there's a problem."
Kids may become angry, depressed or unmotivated. They may have difficulty focusing on work or homework, and problems with social interactions with friends and family.
And screen time affects parents, too, Knull said. Parents checking their email too much or in bed are similarly likely to be irritable and sleep poorly.
"Is that impacting our ability to parent our children? And I would have to say yes."
That's not to say screens should be eliminated, Knull said. Electronic devices are unavoidable in today's technology-based culture, and can be a real help to parents — particularly on long road trips.
"Just be aware of what you are exposing your children to. Use it as a tool … try not to use it every day."