Screen time can help with concussion recovery

Nov. 17, 2022 Experts recommend that children and teenagers who have suffered a concussion rest for a day or two before returning to light activity. A slow return to normal helps young patients recover faster than strict rest, research shows.

Now a a new study suggests that a return to TikTok and Snapchat could help as well.

After studying 700 post-injury patients aged 8 to 16, researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of Calgary in Canada found that children and teenagers who suffered concussions recovered faster if they got moderate screen time.

A “moderate” amount was between 2 and 7 hours per day on various screens. “That includes phones, computers and televisions,” says Molly Cairncross, PhD, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who conducted the study.

People in the study who reported either less or more screen time during the 7 to 10 days after the injury also reported more symptoms, such as headaches and fatigue, in the first month. After that month, everything participants reported similar symptoms regardless of their early screen use—suggesting that screen time makes little to no difference in concussion recovery in children.

The results differ from a 2021 studies by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who discovered screen time slowed down recovery Why the terrible results? “I think what it comes down to is a difference in study design,” says Cairncross. While the previous study measured screen use in the first 48 hours and recovery over 10 days, “we focused on screen time use in the first 7 to 10 days and monitored recovery over 6 months,” she says.

“Taken together, the research suggests that there is a need to find a balance – not too little and not too much screen time for children and adolescents after concussion,” says Cairncross.

In conclusion, the results support moderation rather than blanket restrictions on screen time as the best way to manage concussions in children, especially after the first 48 hours.

“It’s actually surprising,” says Sarah Brittain, a speech pathologist and founder of Colorado Brain Recovery in Wheat Ridge, CO, who was not involved in the study. “An early return to both cognitive and physical activity in a controlled manner is very important. Sitting in a dark room and resting is not the answer and has been disproven in the literature.”

Old advice involved lying in a quiet, dark room for days, but recent evidence shows that such “cocoa therapy” may actually prolong symptoms.

“Over time, we’ve found that this can have a negative impact on quality of life and depression, especially in adolescents,” says Katherine Labiner, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Pediatrix Child Neurology Consultants in Austin, TX, who was not involved in the study.

So, how could monitors help? Labiner, Brittain, and Cairncross all point to the importance of connectivity—not the Internet kind, but the social kind. Children and teenagers use smartphones and computers to connect with peers, so banning screen time could have a negative impact on mental health by leading to loneliness, isolation and lack of social support.

“Depression can prolong the recovery process,” says Brittain.

It’s worth noting that screen time may trigger visual symptoms in some patients, she says. “If someone feels worse within 2 minutes of being on a screen, that’s a good indicator that screens aren’t working for them,” says Brittain. “If being on the screen causes them to feel dizzy or wipe out, or the words on the screen look like they’re moving when they’re not, that means it’s time to take a break.”

She advises parents to watch for behavioral changes such as increased irritability, impatience and/or fatigue, which could mean the child has returned to screen time — or any activity — too soon and should taper off until the symptoms go away.

“The most important thing to emphasize in concussions is full recovery before full return to activity,” says Labiner.

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