Danger of letting kids spend too much time online

When the virtual school day is over, some kids might stay on digital devices for fun. But a Virginia child psychiatrist warns it’s not good to let them surf the web or play video games for hours on end.

“What’s happening is that after time, they’re not getting as much pleasure, and they have to spend longer and longer time seeming to get that pleasure,” said Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente who practices in Burke and Falls Church.

To interrupt that cycle, Patton-Smith said kids should take a break of an hour or more after enjoying virtual entertainment for an hour.

A virtual detoxification could be needed to rebound from a summer break that might have included excessive entertainment screen time.

“For some kids, that needs to be several days. For other kids — if they’re not using it as much — can be several hours, or just a day,” she said. “Understand there’s going to be, kind of, a withdrawal period. Basically, they’re going to have cravings and need to get back online.”

Stimulation from virtual entertainment produces dopamine in the brain’s pleasure center, Patton-Smith said, and bodies need a break to reset the balance. That’s especially important for young developing brains.

Otherwise, she said, there’s a greater risk of children developing anxiety, depression, irritability and loss of focus and concentration.

Even for children not addicted to a game or device, they’re likely to feel a letdown from resetting dopamine levels to help dopamine receptors regulate again.

“And that takes time,” Patton-Smith said. “So they’re going to say they’re bored. They’re going to say: ‘Nothing is fun. I don’t want to do that.’ So, before they start playing the game, there needs to be a structure of how long they’re going to play and what we’re going to do afterward.”

Parents also need to set good examples.

“For no one is it helpful to use screens for a significant period of time. They have to have that balance,” Patton-Smith said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has a breakdown of screen time guidelines that Patton-Smith recommends.

“And, they also have an excellent media use plan that families can get free of charge through HealthyChildren.org,” Patton-Smith said.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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