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What’s the matter with the gray matter?

We’ve all seen it. There’s two parents and several children sitting at a restaurant all engrossed in the little light boxes we all carry with us, and nobody says anything to anyone. They don’t even raise their heads — at least not until the server comes by to take an order. Even then, the prospect of chicken tenders won’t coax some of the children out of their trance. That’s when we’ve all had the thought “that can’t be healthy.” But when we ask why, it’s not quite clear. Sure, children are showing measurable symptoms that may be linked to excessive screen time, and if it’s accompanied by a lack of exercise then that’s obvious, but the human condition is inherently complex, and attributions can be difficult. In other words, many non-scientists could think someone who is shy and reserved is that way because of “screen time” when, in reality, it’s just their personality type. But fascinating new research is actually showing measurable physiological changes in the brain that are linked to screen time.

According to a report published in Psychology Today, researchers have been performing brain scans on children ages 8 to 18 with a “regular exposure” to screen time. With the average child spending more than seven hours per day absorbing electronic media, many parents don’t realize that average is still quite a bit, which is why Victoria Dunckley, M.D. — an integrative child/adolescent/adult psychiatrist and author of the article — notes that she’s seeing children suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and hyper-aroused nervous systems — a condition that she calls electronic screen syndrome.

“These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention,” she writes. And she says that “although many parents have a nagging sense that they should do more to limit screen time, they often question whether there’s enough evidence to justify yanking coveted devices, rationalize that it’s ‘part of our kids’ culture,’ or worry that others — such as a spouse — will undermine their efforts.”

Now brain scan findings are reaffirming suspicions. So in reference to the gray matter at hand, the scans reveal atrophy of the frontal lobe which controls functions such as planning, prioritizing, organizing, and controlling impulses. Shrinkage was also noted in the striatum, the area involved in the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses, and the insula — the area responsible for empathy and compassion. Yet, that’s not all they found: they also saw signs of compromised white matter (links between left and right hemisphere), reduced cortical thickness which could impair cognitive tasks, and impaired dopamine function in relation to cravings or urges.

Like alcohol, screen time has its effects on the developing brain and should be taken seriously. After all, Dunckley has expressed that frontal lobe development is critical to achieving a healthy and successful adult life: “Frontal lobe development, in turn, largely determines success in every area of life — from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills.”

Luckily, the brain is incredibly complex and flexible; you’ve probably heard about people with components missing that live relatively normal lives. That means with a little help, there’s still hope. And our suggestion? Like you’ve probably already guessed, going in the opposite direction is the answer! Other studies show that nature is a great place to start. Couple that with some genuine human connection, and you’re set up for success. I think that means we just suggested summer camp!

So, out of curiosity, and since this is OCN, we did a quick search of summer camps in Colorado. We found some interesting programs, but the one emphasizing personal development through old-school “leave the screen behind and get outdoors” gusto is Cheley Colorado Camps, making it our choice.

What are your thoughts? Do you know of someone suffering from electronic screen syndrome? Should kids be exposed to so much screen time? Let us know in the comments below!

Want to hear more about what’s going on in Colorado? See where Colorado universities rank! 

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