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Our kids are heading for a ‘digital dementia’ epidemic, experts warn

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 A frightening truth: Tech overuse in the next generation may cause a dangerous spike in early-onset dementia, and ‘digital dementia’, as well as an overall cognitive decline. Professionals say it’s time to act, or face the consequences. Health Tech World reports…

Effects of excessive screen time on neurodevelopment is widely known to be detrimental. Modern parents are faced with a whole new level of challenges when it comes to moderating and even fully grasping the effects of screen use on their children. Depression, obesity, and social anxiety have all been linked to a wave of excessive tech and screen use – but dementia is now on the list of devastating conditions that we may be heading for.

‘Digital dementia’ & early onset dementia 

Ultimately digital dementia is a cognitive decline as a result of too much tech. You may notice symptoms associated with ‘normal’ dementia, including developmental delays, lack of movement, and uncoordinated movement patterns. Poor posture, and inability to recall memories are also signs of digital dementia.

What experts are saying now, is that youngsters are at risk of actual, early onset dementia as a result of screen overuse in their crucial, developmental years. The future could see dementia sweep through a generation as a consequence of tech-related cognitive problems. 

Dementia: a ‘direct result’ of tech overuse  

Child Psychologist Dr Elina Telford told Health Tech World: “Neuroscientists are predicting that current generations will present with a higher number of dementias, including early onset dementias, than previous generations as a direct result of screen use.  Arguably screen time is a public health risk.”

Dr Telford also pointed out that excessive screen use at “critical windows” of brain development can alter brain matter, and this directly affects our memory, motor control and motor and sensory function.  

She added: “Frighteningly, chronic sensory stimulation caused by screen use has been found to mirror similar presentations  of adults who have early stage dementia, with people who are excessively using screens having difficulties in the areas of: concentration; orientation; memory acquisition and recall,; as well as difficulties with self-care. “

A report by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information states that chronic sensory overstimulation (i.e., excessive screen time) during brain development increases the risk of accelerated neuro-degeneration in adulthood, which can directly lead to early onset dementia. 

The report read: “We hypothesize that excessive screen exposure during critical periods of development in Generation Z will lead to mild cognitive impairments in early to middle adulthood resulting in substantially increased rates of early onset dementia in later adulthood. 

“We predict that from 2060 to 2100, the rates of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD) will increase significantly, far above the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) projected estimates of a two-fold increase, to upwards of a four-to-six-fold increase.”

How to spot ‘unhealthy’ tech use 

Dr Telford shared some very useful tips on helping children maintain healthy screen time. 

  • It can be helpful for parents to think about their own screen time, specifically what they are role modelling.  Children are unlikely to change any behaviour if they are in an environment when their parents are constantly on devices.  Change needs to be a whole environment approach.
  •  It can be helpful (and shocking) to add up how much screen time your child has a week.  This will give you a steer on whether they are over using devices.  Ideally a child below the age of 2 wouldn’t have any screen time and a child aged 2-5 would only have an hour a day.  However, this is seldom achievable for families.
  • Where possible choose high quality programmes, for younger children slower paced and shorter programs are better.
  • Ideally watch programmes with children and not on small devices, it’s easier to share and discuss what is being watched on a large screen. 
  • Identify screen free time in the day. It can be helpful if the adults also have similar or same rules for themselves.
  • Use clear and consistent boundaries about screen use and if you are to use consequences to be clear and transparent about what they maybe before implementing them. Consequences should be timely, proportionate, easy to implement, realistic and time limited. 
  • Set up family time I.e. meal times with no phones or play dates which are incompatible with screen use.
  • Be realistic about screen time when developing rules based on your family culture and norms also, the child’s age.
  • Utilise in app and phone limits around usage to help prompt stopping using the screen. 
  • Help educate your child about screen use, whilst also listening to them about their concern and frustrations.
  • Where possible and appropriate work with your child to set boundaries to help them create ownership over behavioural change with regards to screen use.

Tech and young children

Dr Telford continued: “It is recommended that screen time is not introduced before the age of 2 and from 2-4 years of age that it’s limited to 1hr a day.  

“The reason being that whilst the impact of screen time is not fully understood in this age range, it is known that screen use is associated with sleep and weight disturbances, as well as potentially impacting on psycho-social learning and development.  I would advise hanging off exposing your child to a screen for as long as possible.  

“It is my view that when children are introduced to screens that it needs to be done in a well thought out way.  With parents having considered boundaries in the first instance.  This is often more easily done if the rules are clear from the outset rather than trying to be implemented retrospectively.  

“I also advise that it’s helpful to start children on a large screen, so that you can watch what they are watching with them.  Watch high quality programs, which are slow in pace.

“Try to start watching the program from the beginning rather than dipping in mid way.  It’s important to notice when your child stops watching the screen too, I often see parents being sucked in to viewing a screen, whilst the child has switched off and moved on to the next activity.

“In terms of tablets and phone use, if they must be introduced, I would advise that it is done so under strict supervision, with appropriate apps downloaded and parental controls on.”

More about digital health and tech addiction

Read the special report from Health Tech World about tech overuse and addiction.

Full story here 

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