Parents may find the subject of screen time limitations just as daunting, if not more daunting, than children do. The constant battle of screen time allowance between a parent and child causes constant strife, which strains the relationship and not to mention, effects everyone’s sanity! This topic becomes even more tense when a child is recovering from a concussion and told they should avoid use of screens. Often in conjunction with this instruction, the child has also been told to avoid physical activity, social events, and school, making the order for no screen time depression and anxiety inducing. In realizing the difficulty this order may impinge on a household, It is only human to ask, how important and necessary is this advice given?
When we examine the science behind the effects of screen time on the brain, without a concussive event, research studies show that children and adolescents using screens for 7 hours or more per day has significant effects on the brain (Lin et al., 2015). Requiring concentration and focus, elevated levels of cognitive expenditure occurs with exposure to video games and prolonged screen time. Using screens this often has shown a decrease in scores of cognitive testing, impairment in social and behavioral skills, and even change in personality. These deficits are due to compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, and gray matter atrophy, all of which can be found on a brain scan. Although this research may be more related to excess use of screen time, we can still look at this research and conclude that screen time is not healing or healthy for our brain (Lin et al., 2015). Use of screen time strains our eyes constantly as the pixels of the screen are ever changing, and this constant strain can lead to the structural and functional effects on the brain aforementioned above. In the same way that we wouldn’t continue throwing a ball with an arm that is injured, we should then also discontinue use of screens as not to further injure the brain as it is healing from a concussion.
Now, how strict does this have to be? Because, let’s be honest… The thought of restricting screen time does not seem feasible. One of the most asked questions we receive in a concussion visit is “How much screen time can I allow each day?” There are no hard and fast rules, although there is sufficient data that resisting screen time completely for a few days post concussion allows the brain to rest, which can shorten the length of recovery. Studies show a link between increased cognitive activity (such as on activity on screens) and longer recoveries after a concussive incident (Brown et al., 2014). Although guidelines allow limited screen time after the first few days post concussion, it is important to stop use of screen time if worsening symptoms present. One may ask, why use screens at all if we know it is not good for our brains? Well, in this day and age, we also have to remember that our children, as well as us, seek much of our sociality by doing things through screens like connecting with friends and watching movies. A balance of screen time usage after the first few days following a concussion is important for our mental health. We must also take into account though, that we have to pay close attention to our own symptoms and listen to our bodies in the concussion recovery process. Taking a short break for symptoms to resolve before use of screen time again may be sufficient; however if symptoms continue to present during screen time, avoidance is suggested. (Meehan & O’Brien, 2018).
Brown et al. (2014). Effect of Cognitive Activity Level on Duration of Post-Concussion Symptoms. Pediatrics,133(2). doi:10.1542/peds.2013-2125d
Lin, F., Zhou, Y., Du, Y., Zhao, Z., Qin, L., Xu, J., & Lei, H. (2015). Aberrant corticostriatal functional circuits in adolescents with Internet addiction disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00356
Meehan, W.P. & O’Brien, M.J. (2018). UpToDate: Concussion in children and adolescents: management.