About a year ago my husband and daughter returned home from a funeral. It was the funeral of a little girl in my daughter’s class, who had committed suicide. She was only 12 years old. Before they left the funeral, the girls’ father called my husband and begged him with tears in his eyes to do whatever he can to monitor our daughter’s internet access. Such a tragic event.
Our approach to children’s mobile phone use
In our home, rules about technology differ from most families around us. Early on, my husband and I had decided that our girls would receive a cell phone when they turned 13. In addition, we are strict about minimising screen time. According to our daughters and their friends, this is not a very popular approach. We have had many heart -to-heart talks about the reasons for this decision. Our eldest daughter, Kayla, has obviously felt quite excluded amongst her friends at times. But she has also come to us with gratitude, because she understood our reasoning and realised that our hearts were focused on protecting hers. On a few occasions, unsettling things went down on some of the WhatsApp groups and because she didn’t have a phone, she couldn’t be implied or affected. She turned 13 this year and has recently received her first phone.
Our thinking is that cell phones for children are mainly for communication purposes, and privileges come with age appropriate responsibility. It is the most beautiful thing to see the joy, thankfulness and appreciation in children when they wait for something until they are ready and emotionally mature enough to own it and take up the appropriate responsibility for it. The choices we have made around limiting technology in our home are due to the fact that we appreciate the long-term effects technology and screen time have on children and more specifically their brain development and growth.
I have recently met with an expert on this subject, who is dedicating his life to educating parents across the globe so that they can make the best decisions for their children regarding technology. Talking to him gave me insight into the impact of technology on a child’s brain. This includes smart phones, social media, watching television and Internet usage. Some of his findings, together with other researched opinions about the impact of technology on children, were rather disturbing. In this two-part article, I will be addressing the influence of technology on children and how to find digital balance in this day and age.
The impact of Technology on a Child’s Brain
It is a well-known fact that the children of Steve Jobs, together with the kids of CEOs and Venture Capitalists living and working in Silicone Valley, have very limited access to technology. Also known as low-tech parents, most of them are in agreement that not only do they understand the dangers of too much screen time, they have also experienced some of it first-hand. Therefore, they do not want their kids exposed to dangers like cyber bullying, pornography and other unhealthy content as well as falling prey to becoming a digital addict. Steve Jobs was a huge fan of family dinners and face-to-face time, building relationships instead of spending time on technology. Most of the Silicone Valley children attend Waldorf schools, which are known for their no-technology approach. These schools are of the viewpoint that children under the age of 12 do not benefit from using technology and understand the negative impact it could have on children. So what is the impact of technology on a child’s brain?
1. Brain development
The sensorium is the part of the brain which receives and interprets all sensory stimuli. It is also the part of the brain where movement and language develop. This development takes place through physical and active play and interactive activities, and mainly occurs between the ages of 0 to 5. When children of this age are passively engaged in technology, their brain development is not optimal.
Children need to be engaged in physical activities in order to learn language skills or to develop gross motor skills.
According to a Report published by Harvard Health Publications, the classification of addiction is based upon three principles:
• It involves a craving for something and continued use thereof in spite of the detrimental consequences this has;
• It affects the brain by undermining the way the brain processes pleasure;
• It can be rehabilitated (and involves withdrawal symptoms).
The Latin word for addiction is addictus, which literally means surrendered. Like many other addictions, Internet or digital addiction (Internet Addiction Disorder or AID) has been classified as a real psychological disorder, and in some cases has to be treated by medication, therapy or even time spent in a rehabilitation center. Being addicted to the Internet could include addictions to social media, television, online gaming and pornography (due to easy access). Addiction is not just measured by time spent on digital devices, but also by the inability of the person to function optimally without them.
A study has shown that in 2015 approximately 500 000 Japanese teens exhibited signs of possible addiction to the Internet.
According to another study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, technology takes up almost 8 hours a day of some children between 8-10 years old and for teens it could be more than 11 hours.
It is also estimated that 2,55 million South Koreans are addicted to technology and use electronic devices for more than 8 hours a day, with some of them being as young as 3 years old.
Countries such as these have already established Digital Detox Rehabilitation Centers in order to help children. Both digital and substance addictions share some of the same withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, agitation and depression, during the rehabilitation.
3. Brain Functioning and Addiction
According to Brad Huddleston, studies show that the brain scan of a drug addict looks exactly the same as the brain of a digital addict. Both addictions trigger the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is the way in which pleasure is registered and experienced in the brain. The dopamine is released in a collection of nerve cells which lies underneath the cerebral cortex of the brain. This region is also called the “pleasure center of the brain”. The speed, constancy and intensity with which dopamine is released by the drug or activity will determine whether it will lead to an addiction. The brain gets used to this reward/pleasure and builds up a tolerance towards its effect. As a result, it lessens the pleasure and an increased dosage of the drugs is needed. Even though this increases the release of dopamine it becomes less and less satisfying due to the tolerance that builds up. The brain initially responds with excitement after which there is a forced shut down (literally like a wall being built in the brain).
In this day and age, we are all guilty of multitasking. I often find myself writing and yet still checking my phone with every message that comes through. It appears as though it is productive and it’s possible to get more things done simultaneously. But research has shown the exact opposite! The effect of multitasking on the brain, especially when technology is involved, causes the generation of additional stress hormones in the brain. It results in thinking less clearly as well as not completing the tasks with excellence. Normally, the brain stores the information it receives from any task and stores it in the hippocampus, from where it can be easily accessed. When we multitask, we swop focus from one device or subject to another, the information is not processed according to this fashion; instead, it is stored in another part of the brain called the striatum. The striatum is responsible for facilitating spontaneous movement and not for storing information. Therefore, information is not stored where it can be easily accessed. The other downside is that if this occurs too often, the brain will be rewired to store information in the wrong part of the brain in future. Some studies even show that digital multitasking results in an actual reduction of grey matter in the brain.
The Impact of technology on learning
We say that learning has occurred when a person is able to recall something previously experienced or encountered and use it for the situation at hand. For this to happen, we must pay attention and understand some information first. Therefore, attention is crucial to learning.
Multitasking and spending too much time on technology causes attention distractions, which in turn has a detrimental influence on a child’s learning and thinking patterns. Without focused attention – the ability to focus exclusively on a task – a child will not be able to develop effective thinking abilities. This greatly influences his/her ability to concentrate, be creative, learn efficiently, solve problems and make decisions. In previous generations, children used to play outdoors and make toys from natural elements instead of playing games on electronic devices. They used to read books instead of watching movies. They depended on imagination and had focused attention and excellent memory, something lacking in many of today’s children. Nicolas Carr compares reading a book to scuba diving. As the diver is in a peaceful, quiet environment with minimum available information and distractions, he/she is forced to really focus and think thoroughly about what he/she sees (reads). Surfing the Internet, however, is compared to a jet skier, gliding on the surface. The jet skier has a vast view and is exposed to a lot of distractions. This makes it much more difficult (if not impossible) to focus his/her attention effectively.
2. Information Retention
After extensive research on this subject, I found that in some instances technology could have a positive effect on learning, especially when children are exposed to the same information through different mediums, for instance by using text, interactive games and videos. However, most of the research still shows that learning the old fashioned way (by using books) is more conducive to information retention than learning or reading digitally. Interestingly enough, according to research, retention is higher not only because books don’t have distractions like constant pop-up advertisements and hyperlinks, but also because of the actual topography of a book. Screens are draining on the eyes and brain thus minimising what the reader remembers. It has been found that people approach reading digitally in a less focused way than reading on paper. When a learner holds a book in his/her hand, they are oriented in terms of where they are in the text, the beginning and end of the book. There is an ease with which they can turn back to revisit text they have already read. It is therefore easier for the learner to form a coherent picture of the content. Digital reading makes it impossible for the reader to see the portion they are studying in context with the entire content.
A vast amount of studies has been done on text comprehension and recall of digital readers versus paper readers. The results show time and again that there is a higher comprehension and memory recall of material read on paper as opposed to the same material studied on screen. Readers could answer questions asked about the text more accurately and rapidly due to information being stored in the correct place (hippocampus) in the brain. Old school methods of studying have been established to create a love for learning in children, assist them in concentrating effectively and teach them how to think creatively and solve problems effectively. In the beginning of 2016, some High schools in our area have given learners the option of using digital versus paper textbooks. I have spoken to many of them and all agreed that studying with downloaded textbooks on an I-pad sounded great initially, but they are all reverting back to original textbooks next year.
The New York times reported that when children are taught to write before typing, they will reap the benefits when it comes to creativity such as generating new idea as well as retaining information. The reason being, that writing activates a different part of their brain.
Apart from the influence on brain development there are also other areas of children’s lives which are being impacted by technology. In Part 2 of this article I will be addressing the Impact of Technology on the social development of children and how to find balance in today’s digital driven world.