When you hear the term “digital dangers” what comes to mind first? Cyberbullying? Online predators? Sexting? Internet addiction? These are all worrisome risks of using electronic devices and the internet and the ones we hear about at school, from law enforcement and the media.  But few teens or parents are aware that a potentially greater danger exists in the lure of that screen.

Whatever device or program a child is using, the simple act of interacting with an electronic screen has the potential to cause a long list of negative emotional, physical and behavioural problems. Smartphones have changed the landscape of internet use to constant availability, and since over 90% of teenagers are now online daily, we should all become familiar with its effects.

Emotional and mental health problems caused by electronic screen use have now been studied extensively. Excessive internet use is most commonly linked to depression and anxiety.

Dr. Douglas Gentile’s longitudinal study of over 3,000 children published in 2011 demonstrated that pathological video game use causes depression, anxiety, and social phobias. A large Swiss study published in 2011 of over 7,000 adolescents aged 16 to 20 defined heavy internet use as over two hours per day and found that heavy users were significantly more depressed.

The alarming statistics provided by Common Sense Media in a 2015 survey are that the average teen spends nine hours per day on entertainment media (not including school-related) and the average “tween” spends nearly 6 hours per day.

At the same time medications for psychological problems are being prescribed at unprecedented rates. Data from the National Health Interview Survey (2011-2012), showed that 7.5% of children aged 6–17 years used prescribed medication for emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Physical problems associated with heavy internet use include eye disorders, repetitive injuries including carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, craving sweets, obesity and poor physical conditioning. Specific behavioural issues of hyperactivity and attention problems are also on the rise and have been linked to internet use.

In addition to these individual conditions, there is a constellation of problems that arise from interactive screen use.  Dr. Victoria Dunckley, an integrative psychiatrist, uses the term “Electronic Screen Syndrome”.

In her 2015 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, she calls this an unrecognized disorder.  Interactive screens act as a physiologic stressor and cause troubling emotional, physical, behavioural and social effects. Typical symptoms are irritability, mood swings, oppositional-defiant behaviour, sleep difficulties, memory and attention issues, poor executive functioning, worsening school performance, decreased empathy, anxiety, and depression.

Parents may attribute worsening grades to “stress” and defiance to normal teen behaviour.  Professionals may misdiagnose the hyperactivity associated with screen time to ADHD and prescribe medications with little benefit. Children are labelled with serious mental health diagnoses such as depression and anxiety.  It is imperative that the effects of screens be part of the list of possible causes of all of these types of behaviours, yet most parents, physicians and even mental health professionals are not aware of this.


How can families cope with this new information?

  • Learn about the negative effects of screen time on children. There is currently no coordinated government or school program to educate the public of these facts. The resources listed below are a good place to begin.
  • Recognize the symptoms of Electronic Screen Syndrome in your child.
  • Reduce technology use in your household, and consider an electronic “fast”, especially before a child is medicated for symptoms that may actually be caused by screen use.
  • Add in alternative activities to replace screen time. Use the Lifestyle Pyramid for School-Age Children as a guideline. Entertainment media should only be used when all other areas are functioning well.
  • Consider getting professional advice from an expert in treating internet-related disorders.

Families should feel hopeful about treating electronic screen syndrome. If emotional or behavioural problems are caused by screen time, they are often reversible with a reduction or even temporary elimination of digital media.  Increasing the public’s awareness of this increasing problem is the first step.



Dunckley, Victoria, (2015) 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.

Freed, Richard, (2015). Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age.


Written by Ann H. Steel, MD, MA

Ann Steel is a former practicing physician who works as a licensed mental health counsellor in Bellevue, WA specializing in the treatment of digital media overuse and addiction. You can find her at