man and woman having fun with their child

It’s hard to prevent children from spending time screen-side. Especially in 2020 or 2021, during the times of Covid-19. From video-chat with grandparents to attending uni classes remotely, time online is here to stay.

Yet advanced brain scanning technology has taught us something that we would be foolish to ignore – that screen time can have negative neurological effects on our kids, even worse than the effects on adults.

Screen time has become essential for educational advancement. Modern schools often have computer learning rooms, not libraries or books. Homeschoolers rely heavily on in-app learning. Busy parents and even daycare operators often use educational shows to grab some minutes to themselves.

However, the very screens our kids use to learn could affect their neurological development, learning and school performance. It is also linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression. The more they are online and on screens, the worse their mental health.

A worrying study found that kids with higher screen usage have different brains and impaired brain development compared to kids with lower screen usage. Preschoolers with high screen use had reduced myelination of neurons in the brain, something directly tied to reaching developmental milestones.

Youth will probably use their devices intensely until the pandemic has passed. Therefore, it makes absolute sense to do what we can to protect them from the potential ill effects. These ill effects include the chance of impaired cognitive function and eyesight, increased inactivity and obesity, more anxiety and depression, and poorer overall health and life outcomes.

To counteract this, we need to optimize what we can. We can get them outside, engage with them face-to-face, play games in real life, and of course, one big modifiable factor that we can control is nutrition.

DHA-rich foods

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is a very important fatty acid, one essential for neurological and visual development. Higher levels of DHA may increase the chances for better learning and retention.

Studies suggest an important role for DHA in both brain activity and school performance. One 2008 study published in Clinical Pediatrics found that four-year-olds with higher blood levels of DHA scored higher on vocabulary tests, but unfortunately, Canadians, US Americans and Australians are not meeting recommended DHA intakes.

DHA supplements

The usual intake of DHA among toddlers and children is low and some studies show improvements in cognition and behavior as the result of supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids including DHA.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, DHA deficiency may be common among children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Supplements may help both neurodiverse children and those with similar traits or behaviour to those with conditions like ADHD, such as inattentiveness, distractibility or trouble completing tasks.

In 2017 the journal Lipids published a review of 16 randomized controlled trials where DHA was given as a supplement. Thirteen of the studies reported improvement with symptoms like hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention, visual learning, word reading, and working (also called short-term) memory.

Balance diet and blood sugar

People who have trouble with focus and attentiveness have greater nutrient needs, and not only for DHA fatty acids.

They often have difficulty regulating blood sugar, and do better with more protein, while avoiding simple carbohydrates especially early in the day. To help fuel their brains, they need quality, healthy fats while avoiding the bad fats found in ultra-processed foods.

The authors of The ADD and ADHD diet suggest favouring a clean, organic diet full of magnesium-rich green vegetables (including sea veggies and algae) to support optimal attention and focus. They recommend increasing the overall intake of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega 3 and linoleic acid (LA) omega 6 essential fatty acids.

Try adding protein and complex carbohydrates to breakfast. Skip pastry or cereal and upgrade to sprouted-grain toast topped with an omega-3 egg. Or, try chia pudding with unsweetened high-protein Greek yogurt.

A berry smoothie can be a tasty vehicle for protein powder and leafy greens, and can make compliance a breeze with the addition of an all-in-one fatty acid supplement like one with omega 3 as DHA and other fatty acids, such as the recommended EPA, ALA and LA.

Lifestyle tips

We all benefit from raising collectively happier, healthier kids. In addition to watching diet and starting DHA supplements early in life, we can start screens later in life, and reduce non-essential use. We can make time for relationships and nature and get kids hooked on books.

Pediatric experts recommend kids under 2 years old not use screens, or only for short video chats with family, and that toddlers between 2 and 5 years old use them for maximum 1 hour per day until school age. Focus on balancing screen time with movement, connection, other stimulation (nature!) and deep sleep – it’s good for adults too!

Do you struggle with screen use?

Did you catch my Phone Audit Facebook video to check on your phone usage?

I would definitely love to hear back from you on this, especially if you or your people struggle with ADHD.