As a pediatric occupational therapist, understanding how and why children’s brains can become overwhelmed is a significant aspect of my work. But understanding the cause is just one piece of the puzzle, because it’s even more important to know how to identify and address the challenges that come from being overstimulated.
In a nutshell, the brain can become “overwhelmed” when it is bombarded with an excessive amount of sensory information or experiences. If this happens persistently, the brain may begin to struggle to process and integrate information effectively. If this type of overstimulation persists, it can contribute to difficulties in other vital areas of life such as attention, self-regulation, problem-solving, and decision-making.
While I am an advocate for using technology to support learning, in my own experience as a pediatric OT, one of the most frequent issues I have to address is the prevalence of delayed motor skills. One of the reasons for this is because when kids are cooped up in front of an iPad or TV, they miss out on valuable physical movement and other muscle-building activities that come with the opportunity to explore.
In addition to the negative impact this has on the child’s physical development, more current research is showing that excessive screen time is associated with other delayed cognitive and linguistic development. And again, that’s partially due to the fact that these kids are having fewer social interactions and less hands-on experiences too. As a therapist, I know that if early intervention is not sought out, these children could face more severe long-term consequences like poorer academic performance too.
When it comes to addressing these challenges, it’s important to recognize that the underlying causes aren’t a one-size-fits-all thing. Understanding the underlying reasons why children use screens too much has allowed me to approach the issue with empathy and compassion. The reality is that, for some families, challenges such as food or housing insecurity can limit access to alternative recreational activities or resources for child development. In addition, screens can provide a temporary escape or source of entertainment for these children in challenging circumstances, or act as a temporary solution for parents to occupy or soothe their children while they address their own emotional needs (which, let’s face it, is a reality).
To me, it is crucial to empower them with the knowledge and tools necessary to create a healthy balance between screen time and other essential aspects of their child’s development. When it comes to setting boundaries, guidelines for appropriate screen time and effective management have become a vital aspect of my practice. I frequently share the recommendations provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) with parents and caregivers.
For instance, I emphasize that children aged 2 to 5 years should have no more than one hour of high-quality screen time per day, and children under 18 months should avoid screen time altogether, with the exception of video chatting or engaging with friends or relatives. I also provide parents with practical strategies to establish consistent limits on screen time, create screen-free zones and times, and encourage alternative activities that promote physical play, creativity, and social interactions.
As a pediatric occupational therapist, my work revolves around supporting children with developmental disabilities in their journey towards improved well-being. By understanding the overwhelming nature of excessive screen time, recognizing the underlying reasons behind its use, and providing personalized guidelines for appropriate screen time and management, I aim to make a meaningful impact in these children’s lives, to help them unlock their full potential and thrive in their daily experiences.
Kim Cunningham, MS OTR has served as a Licensed Pediatric Occupational Therapist for over 20 years, with a focus on early childhood development. As an educator, she’s concerned in a holistic and comprehensive approach to the care of her young patients, even when they are learning from home. She is the founder and creator of the Hands on Fun OT kit, making occupational therapy fun and easy for parents and children.