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Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s New Book Designed to Reset Your Child's Brain

Dr. Dunkley

Many parents have noticed that playing video games or sitting in front of a television set seems to have an adverse effect on their child's behavior. Integrative child psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, M.D., has noticed it too. So she created a program called Reset Your Child's Brain to help parents understand the damage too much screen time can cause and help combat the various disorders and poor behaviors that can result. Below, Dr. Dunckley explains her research and experience creating the powerful program to JustLuxe. It's definitely a must-read for parents that have kids growing up in the electronic age.

What was the impetus for writing Reset Your Child's Brain? About a decade ago, I began to notice that many of the kids I was seeing were struggling with meltdowns and attention issues regardless of whatever their underlying diagnosis was. Through trial and error—whether the child had ADHD, bipolar disorder, or autism—I found that kids weren’t making significant progress until their electronics use had been drastically reduced.  I began to earn a reputation for treating difficult cases, but in reality the intervention was quite basic, much like getting more exercise or better sleep.  But the key was educating the parents and employing the intervention in a strict way. I realized that in order for parents to make the changes necessary to reset various brain systems, they needed both knowledge and motivation. Not only did they need to grasp how screen-time impacts the brain, they needed to make the link between those effects and their own child’s issues. So I wanted to provide lots of different case studies to illustrate this. Lastly, parents, clinicians, and educators always ask to see proof  behind my claims , so I wanted the book to become a go-to resource that included an overview of screen-time research.   

What do you think most parents don’t know about how being on electronic devices so much of the time affects their children?

Most parents don’t realize that the brain experiences screen-time stimulation as a form of stress. Each exposure triggers fight-or-flight reactions in the brain and body, by several different mechanisms. Because of this, even small but regular amounts of screen-time can overload the system and cause children to have trouble with regulating emotion and arousal levels. This is particularly true for boys, and for any child prone to attention, mood, or sleep problems.  Stress reactions and chronically high levels of arousal—what we call hyperarousal— compound over time, so screen activities may not cause problems initially, but create a vicious cycle: overstimulation causes shallow sleep, which causes mood and attention impairment, and the child seeks more stimulation to stay alert, and so on. As the child’s brain becomes more and more out of tune, small demands start to feel like big ones, and symptoms like meltdowns, falling grades, or defiance emerge.

Parents also don’t realize that the screen itself— and interacting with that screen — that trigger hyperarousal and overstimulation. Unnaturally bright light, vivid colors, quick movements, rapid interaction—all of this overloads the brain’s sensory and reward pathways. This means even so-called “educational” screen-time is virtually just as harmful as entertainment screen-time. In other words, content doesn’t matter all that much: “it’s the medium, not the message.”

Does passively watching as opposed to actively interacting online have a different effect?  

In our culture, passive screen activities like TV are considered less healthy for the brain than interactive screen activities. Yet research and clinical experience tells us that interactive screen-time is actually more harmful, because interactive screen-time is both more stimulating and more addicting.  Thus, it’s more likely to cause over-activation of reward pathways, imbalance of important brain chemicals like dopamine, and disruption of the body clock. Because of this, it’s also more likely to cause sleep, mood, and attention, and behavioral problems.

How do you define Electronic Screen Syndrome?

Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS) is a condition in which the nervous system becomes overstimulated from too much screen-time. It’s essentially a syndrome of dysregulation where various brain mechanisms start to malfunction due to chronic hyperarousal. The concept of ESS was born out of a need to describe a constellation of symptoms I was seeing in children that tended to resolve once things like video games and smartphones had been eliminated. As mentioned, these findings held true regardless of the child’s diagnosis.

ESS symptoms can take on a variety of forms, but typical ones include irritable mood, poor focus, and disorganized or defiant behavior. Children with ESS become tearful, frustrated, or angry very easily, and tend to have meltdowns over minor incidents. They’re often struggling in school because they can’t get their work done, and display immature behavior that’s off-putting to peers, such being a “sore loser” or arguing all the time. Regarding leisure activities, they may have lost interest in anything that isn’t electronically-based, and show little imaginative play or creative expression. 

Does it affect different children in different ways?  If so can you describe some of the ways children are affected? With ESS or any stress-related state, blood flow is shunted away from the brain’s frontal lobe and toward the more primitive parts of the brain. Since the frontal lobe controls mood regulation, attention, impulse control, and even empathy, all of these functions can be impaired. Thus, with ESS we can see a wide range of issues, including depression, aggression, learning problems, defiance, anxiety, and poor social skills.  

Book cover
Victoria Dunkley

Can you share a story that illustrates what you're describing?

A mother of an 8-year-old boy emailed me stating her son’s teacher as well as his pediatrician suspected the boy had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). He was disruptive in class, seemed disinterested in learning and was at risk for failing 2ndgrade. Yet prior to that year, he’d done well in school and loved learning about the world around him. The mother had been reading my articles and decided to remove all of his video games and other devices before taking any other steps, and within a few weeks his teacher asked if he’d been put on medication! His reading and math skills had improved rapidly, and his behavior was much calmer and more compliant.

In another case a teenage girl was kicked out of school for uncontrollable rages. After several medication trials resulted in no changes except for twenty pounds of extra weight, she and her mom came to see me. This young lady did indeed have an underlying mood disorder, but it turned out that it was being greatly magnified by computer use. Once we addressed the electronics, she was able to successfully return to school. And because we were able to cut back on most of her medications, she lost weight, too. 

In your practice, you use what you call an Electronic Fast, how would you describe that?

The electronic fast consists of a three week or longer period in which exposure to interactive screen-time is eliminated. I allow a small amount of TV or movie watching, as long as it’s not fast-paced animation. (For example, older Disney movies are allowed.) Depending on the severity of symptoms and how much screen-time is occurring in the classroom and for homework, in some cases we eliminate school-based screen-time as well.

For some kids, the electronic fast results in complete resolution of symptoms. For others, it greatly reduces symptoms, so that in cases where medication is needed, the effective dose will be lower. So the fast has three important benefits: it clarifies diagnoses, improves symptoms and functioning, and optimizes other treatments to work as they should. For example, therapy might start progressing faster, or tutoring in math might suddenly become more effective. After the fast, parents can decide if they want to try to reintroduce a small amount of electronics use in a slow and careful way, with certain safeguards in place.

Is it possible to actually get kids to go on a fast in this wired age?

It’s safe to assume that kids will resist the fast, but we don’t need their permission to do it. Heck, you don’t need a young adult’s permission either if they’re living under your roof! But in terms of the process, the parent needs to be educated first about screen-time’s effects on physiology, how it influences their particular child’s issues, and why the electronic fast rather than simply trying to cut back is often necessary. Then the parent needs guidance and support surrounding the logistics.Once we get past the emotional resistance and plan the logistics of the electronicfast, it becomes quite easy—much easier than parents imagine it to be. And really, in a day and age when health and education resources are spread thin, we should be celebrating any intervention that is effective across a broad range of conditions, cost-free, risk-free, and drug-free. I view using the electronic fast as a no-brainer.   Regarding school-related screen-time, the book addresses this issue in detail, but readers can also access additional support and resources at www.ResetYourChildsBrain.com.

Does Electronic Screen Syndrome affect children and adults differently?

Mostly in the sense that children will be more sensitive to developing it. The more mature, integrated, and well-connected the brain is, the more resistant to ESS it will be. But adults who are prone to attention issues, who are stressed, or who have a lot of screen-time themselves—especially when they don’t exercise and or get much exposure to nature—will exhibit much of the same symptoms. For kids and adults, one of the best ways to prevent ESS is to follow strict house rules about electronics use, such as sticking to designated times and zones for screen use that everyone has to follow. And, ironically, the less screen-time kids are exposed to while their brains are developing, the better they’ll be at tolerating it and the more likely they’ll use technology in constructive ways as adults.

With more devices coming out at a dizzying rate, how do you feel society can realistically deal with this problem moving forward? 

Like all progressive social changes, we have to start with awareness, and in particular realize that technology is being introduced and even forced into children’s lives before they’re ready for it.  It’s not a question of how young children can learn tech skills; it’s very obvious they can learn them early.  The question is how to introduce it at a pace that is healthy. This may vary from child to child, but we can’t go wrong by slowing it way down for all children.When prioritizing children’s future needs, if we remember to always put “safety and brain health first,” we won’t get caught up in the panic- and hype-driven framework of 21st Century Learning. It doesn’t matter how tech savvy a child is if his or her brain doesn’t function well, and studies show brain health determines success in life not just in education and career but in relationships and happiness. Also, we have to look at the cost of too much technology not only to individual children, but to all of society. Obesity, mental illness, delinquency, special education, and unemployment have all been linked to screen-time, and these are expensive consequences that we have some control over. We can pay the piper now or we can pay the piper later.

 For more information visit: http://www.resetyourchildsbrain.com

Carly Zinderman

Carly Zinderman is a Senior Staff Writer for JustLuxe, based just outside of Los Angeles, CA. Since graduating from Occidental College with a degree in English and Comparative Literary Studies, she has written on a variety of topics for books, magazines and online publications, but loves fashion and style best. In her spare time, when she?s not writing, Carly enjoys watching old movies, reading an...(Read More)

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