Virtual School and The Digital Era -A Clinical Psychologist Weighs in

We need to start making changes before it is too late…


Due to the nature of the current pandemic, distance learning seems to be an approach being taken for many families. One of course would think about the influence of being in front of screen for multiple hours, however, we would have to distinguish between learning online and “entertainment”.

Kids spend almost 8 hours per day in front of a screen. Couple that with media multi-tasking, watching a movie and texting or Facebooking while surfing the Internet, and it now jumps to 10 hours per day. That is one third of a kid’s life is in front of a screen!

How is that not going to influence our youth? Anxiety has risen over the past 30 years, ADHD has increased, and Obesity. Twenty five percent of younger generations are diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder, one in nine have ADHD, and Obesity has doubled in children and tripled in adolescents. Alarming!

Elementary students who spend more than two hours a day watching TV or using a computer are more likely to have emotional, social and attention problems. Exposure to video games also increases the risk of attention problems in children. Children who watch excessive amounts of TV are more likely to bully other children compared to children who don’t, according to a study by Ozmert, Ince, Pektas, Ozdemirr and Uckardes. Too much exposure to violence on TV and in movies, music videos, and video and computer games can desensitize children to violence. As a result, children may learn to accept violent behavior as a normal part of life and a way to solve problems, according to another study by Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski and Eron.

Where did it all begin? Ronald Reagan. Well, in the 1980s the Reagan Administration promoted Free Enterprise, “Let the people govern themselves”. Businesses flourished, economic freedom, somewhat. Just prior to that, in the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a ban on advertising to children. In the ’80s, nonetheless, Congress refuted this and called the FTC a “National Nanny”. Marketing companies exploded with advertising campaigns targeting children. The “Nag Factor” was developed where companies learned that if they convince children vis-a-vis commercials to buy their products, they would “nag” their parents to purchase it.

Saturday morning, perhaps one of the most exciting times of the week, was were back to back cartoons held a TV spot from about 7am-11am. These cartoons were scientifically engineered to have one outcome- SELL. They would have a psychologist on staff in order to manipulate their naive audience. Martin Lindstrom wrote a book called Brandwashed discussing how multi-billion dollar companies spend exorbitant amount of money to brainwash its consumer. Smells, sounds, colors, placement of ads, height of point of sale, are all just a few examples of many. Strollers, bibs, much of kids’ necessities now have licensed character from Elmo to Buzz Lightyear. Infants as young a 6 months old, are able to form “mental image” of marketing campaigns. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that “nearly all of America’s 6-years-old could identify Joe Camel, who was just as familiar to them as Mickey Mouse.”

A study by Chen et al. found that 1 extra hour of music videos was associated with an increased in potential adolescent alcohol abuse by 31%. Socially, marketing companies have glorified alcohol in order to create an alluring attraction. Not only are the effects of alcohol reinforcing, but the social lubrication and communal component has its benefits as well. With identity being one of the developmental components of adolescents, marketing companies through branding can contaminate this identity search. The branding that companies project on the public becomes the integral part of the self (See David Aaker’s Branding Model established 1996). Through various forms of advertising, marketers embed their brand into the psyche of their target population. Specifically, U.S. Television alcohol advertising has reached 89% of youths under the legal drinking age (i.e., ages 12 to 20) (research published at the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, 2008).

When the Federal Trade Commission looked into this issue, they stated that there is some evidence that advertising plays a role on underage drinking, yet it is “far from conclusive” (Federal Trade Commission, 1999; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2000). However, subsequent studies looked at 13 longitudinal studies published in peer-reviewed literature, following up a total of more than 38,000 young people (18 and younger) from 13 studies to assess the impact of marketing on adolescents, suggested that exposure to media is associated with a greater probability that adolescents will commence alcohol consumption, or consume more if they are already drinking at baseline (in a 2009 study authored by Anderson, De Bruijn, Angus, Gordon and Hastings).

A cellphone, our fifth limb, is engrained in us so much that the first thing that people do when they wake up is check their phone.

Also, what many do is browse their cellphone at night, which according to Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Steven Lockley, can disturb a person’s sleep.

  • “Blue light preferentially alerts the brain, suppresses the melatonin and shifts your body clock all at the same time.”
  • “Your brain is more alert now and thinks it’s daytime because we have evolved to only see bright light during the day.”

This influences our circadian rhythm, and as we know, if we have a difficult night of sleep our emotional/mental heath is poor. Children, especially need at least 8-10 hours of sleep every day for proper development. This is the time where neural connection and synaptic pruning occurs. Millions of American Youth watch television and have a cellphone. Youths who watch more than 2 hours per day of TV are likely to be overweight (Strasburger, 2011). Moreover, in a study among adolescents, intensive mobile phone use was linked to poor perceived health, both directly and through poor sleep and waking-time tiredness (Punamäki, Wallenius, Nygard, Saarni, Rimpela, 2007).

We need to start making changes before it is too late…

What can parents do to curb screen time?

  • Eliminate background TV.
  • Keep TVs and computers out of the bedroom.
  • Keep an open communication
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV.
  • Set school day rules.
  • Avoid using TV and video or computer games as a reward
  • Unplug it.
  • You might designate one day a week a screen-free day
  • Suggest other activities. Classic activities, such as reading, playing a sport or trying a new board game.
  • Set a good example
  • Make viewing an event. Plan to see a movie in a theater.
  • Choose a show and pick a specific time to watch it.
  • Plan what your child views. TV Parental Guidelines – Make a list of the programs your child can watch for the week and post it in a visible spot, such as near the TV or on the refrigerator.
  • Use parental control settings on your home computer.
  • ESRB Ratings
  • Preview video games before allowing your child to play them
  • Watch with your child. — and talk about what you see.
  • Record programs. This will allow you to skip or fast-forward through commercials selling toys, junk food and other products, Pause a program when you want to discuss something you’ve watched — such as a depiction of family values, violence or drug abuse.
  • During live programs, use the MUTE button during commercials.

Due to the nature of current pandemic, distance learning seems to be an approach many parents are taking. One of course would think about the influence of being in front of screen for multiple hours, however, we would have to distinguish between learning online and “entertainment”. 

When children are learning, they are actively engaging their brain, while processing and consolidating the information. When we are entertained, however, it is passive; not much processing and consolidation occurring. Entertaining, typically, is dopamine (ie. pleasure chemicals) rich mostly utilizing much less brain activity, when compared to learning, which engages much more brain activity.

Nonetheless, we would certainly be concerned about our kids looking/learning in front a screen. Therefore, as parents we would want to make that after school time is concluded, incorporating more sensory play, creative play, and physical activity.

A great resource to help with this is:

Dr. Edan M. Alcalay
Licensed Psychologist/Adjunct Faculty at Lynn University
Specializing in Children, Adolescents, Addiction & Trauma Psychological & Psychoeducational Testing Florida Psychological Association (FPA), Palm Chapter Board Member Continuing Education Chair
7700 Congress Ave, Suite 2207
Boca Raton, FL 33487

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