Does this scenario sound familiar? Your kiddo is on the couch playing a video game after dinner and you have called his name 8 times with not even an acknowledgement that you exist. He is busy gathering weapons, dodging bullets, searching for health upgrades and taking out bad guys. When you get close to him you notice that he is breathing fast and so you feel his forehead and it is a little warm, but the action does not even phase him since he is so focused on his game. “Time for bath” you say, but he just wiggles around you to keep his view of the TV. You turn off the game and he flips out, name calling and pillow throwing ensue as you wrestle with him to go upstairs to get ready for bed, noticing that his heart rate seems higher than normal.
“Wow” you think, “what happened to my calm child that was just helping his brother color a picture before dinner”. You have heard of addiction, but this seems to go beyond that with the way his body is responding. Hyperarousal happens when video games stimulate the sensory and nervous system to a level of fight or flight, a survival that is programed to warn us of danger. Even though there is no real threat of danger from the video game, his body still reacts as if it were real.
How many of you remember the TV ads from the 80’s that showed a hot frying pan, an egg dropped in that began to sizzle with the caption “this is your brain on drugs…any questions?” It reminds me to a slightly lesser extent of what is going on the brain of our kids who are spending too much time on video games and screen time.
Let’s look at what is going on with his brain and nervous system during these intense video game sessions. As your child continues to play and gets deeper and deeper into the virtual world, his brain becomes more overstimulated. He is acting, in his brain, as if he is on the battlefield hence the increased heart rate and temperature elevation. The game is confusing his senses since the field on the bright screen is mid- day while in reality it is dark outside and nearly bedtime. Because of the visual stimulation his dopamine levels rise which creates an addiction to the game by flooding his reward centers with neurotransmitters. He is in sympathetic overdrive fueled by adrenaline in his body and it is hard for him to think straight and calm down right away.
There is a saying that goes “nerves that fire together wire together”. What this means is that when the body and brain is in a certain situation and a response is made, then it is easier for the body to react and return to the stimulated level. In this case, the more the kids play video games and get into a hyperarousal state, the easier it is for them to get into this state with less and less stimuli. It doesn’t just happen with kids though. When was the last time you were cut off in traffic and you continued to fume afterword about it, even long after arriving at your destination. With kids it has more lasting effects because their brains are going through developmental windows that can wire the brain for life.
In an article posted in Psychology Today, Dr. Dunckley MD explains “When the fight-or-flight state occurs too often, or too intensely, the brain and body have trouble regulating themselves back to a calm state, leading to a state of chronic stress. Chronic stress is also produced when there is a “mismatch” between fight-or-flight reactions and energy expenditure, as occurs with screen-time. Indeed, the build-up of energy is meant to be physically discharged to allow the nervous system to re-regulate. However, research suggests screen-time induces stress reactions even in children who exercise regularly.”
She goes on to explain “Once chronic stress sets in, blood flow is directed away from the higher thinking part of the brain (the frontal lobe) and toward the more primitive, deeper areas necessary for survival, causing impairment in functioning. With children, whose nervous systems are still developing, this sequence of events occurs much faster than it does for adults, and the chronically stressed child soon starts to struggle.” So we can see how kids caught in this chronic stress or hyperarousal have impairments in the frontal lobe or rational thought centers. It also makes it harder to learn new tasks and concepts, follow directions, or suppress impulsive behavior when the frontal lobe short circuits.
One of the benefits of chiropractic care is to restore balance to the body through the nervous system. By helping the body deal with stress and move kiddos from a sympathetic dominance to a balance with the parasympathetic side of the nervous system, they are able to grow and develop at a natural rate. Dr. Bruce Lipton states “you can’t be in growth (parasympathetic) and protection (sympathetic) at the same time.” The nervous system is literally like a teeter totter, with stress and protection on one side and growth and development on the other. The body should be able to move back and forth as needed in our daily lives. For kids, they tend to be more parasympathetic for growth unless something is causing them stress and upsetting the balance. Dr. Dunckley goes on to point out it is not just the violent video games that cause hyperarousal. Many factors added up will have this affect such as; bright and blue toned light, media-multitasking, electromagnetic radiation, interactivity and rapid pace, intense sensory stimulation and reward/addiction pathways all stimulated by technology.
In chiropractic we talk about life stresses as they can be divided into three categories, Thoughts/emotions, Trauma/physical injury, and Toxins/environmental and food. It seems we need to add to these three T’s another T for Technology. It has been shown in studies and in practice that the chiropractic adjustment takes the body out of sympathetic dominance and brings it back to balance with a parasympathetic effect. In addition to getting kids adjusted, we parents need to take charge and make mindful screen management decisions that can and will guide the brain development of our kiddos.
“It’s not realistic to expect the brain to adapt to intense and artificial stimulation it was never meant to handle. It’s also not realistic to expect a child with still-developing frontal lobe to control their screen-time, whether that means managing how long they play a game, how they use or misuse social media, or how they behave afterward.”
To read Dr. Victoria Dunckley’s full article go here https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201609/is-your-childs-brain-video-games
Or you can check out her book: Reset your child’s brain: a four week plan to end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen time.