Children can easily become overstimulated and dysregulated with even moderate amounts of daily exposure to electronic media, a condition I call Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). Because interactive screen activities can overwhelm the nervous system--by disrupting the body clock, brain chemistry, blood flow, hormone balance, and stress levels--the brain goes into a state of chronic stress or "survival mode." In this state, blood flow gets shunted away from the more developed areas such as the all-important frontal lobe, to more primitive areas that control behavior through fear and instinct, keeping the brain on "high alert."
This sequence of events happens in all of is, but it happens more quickly in children, and even more readily in children with underlying psychiatric, learning, or neurological disorders. The condition is reversible with a strict, extended electronic fast followed by methodical screen-time restrictions, and the protocol -- known as the Reset Program -- can provide dramatic improvements in mood, focus, sleep, and social behavior, regardless of any underlying diagnoses. It does this by retuning and resynchronizing nervous system physiology to a more natural and balanced state.
Yet in spite of the relief felt by the entire family once the child has successfully completed the program, other concerns emerge. In place of the stress of dealing with meltdowns and failing grades comes a less pressing but persistent worry from parents: If I continue to restrict access to technology, will my child get left behind?
This fear is understandable, since no parent wants to potentially handicap their child's future. But the concern is unfounded, since it is frontal lobe health that determines academic and social success as well as emotional well-being and self-esteem.
Supporting brain integration by being as screen-free as possible means you’ll be optimizing your child’s learning ability--no matter what the subject matter. In contrast, a child who has great computer skills but poor frontal lobe functioning will have trouble advancing in anything, since good frontal lobe function is needed to “get things done,” tolerate frustration, and develop a strong social network. The frontal lobe is where creativity, innovation, discipline, "big picture" thinking, and grit are born and bred.
Further, compared to learning to read, write, and do math, computer skills are readily learned by children of all ages. Currently, computer skills are overemphasized in schools, often to the detriment of other types of learning. Studies have shown that rhesus monkeys can easily learn how to use a touchscreen or joystick to problem solve on a computer, and dolphins and apes have been taught to use iPads.1 It's just not that difficult.
And how much technology do kids really need to know that they don’t know already in order to succeed — or that won’t be obsolete by the time they graduate? Research suggests computer skills don’t translate into better wages, while reading and math skills do.2 And really, most kids are plenty tech-savvy already. Worst-case scenario, your child will be able to catch up later.
Moreover, based on the fact that early screen exposure is associated with language and reading delays, and that computer use at home and/or at school are linked to falling scores,3 there appears to be critical and potentially long-term benefits to delaying screen technology until the brain is able to tolerate it. Nor am I the only one who suggests it’s wise to delay technology’s introduction; top-notch private schools like Waldorf, renowned for its natural teaching methods, don’t introduce any computer training until sixth grade.4 Tellingly, many CEOs and executives of Silicon Valley tech companies prefer low-tech “nature-based” education, including Waldorf, for their own children.5 Steve Jobs, of all people, reportedly strictly limited his kids’ access to electronic gadgets, and apparently so do numerous other execs and wealthy venture capitalists around the country.6 If the people at the top of their game in the tech and finance world — who have access to the very best resources — want to delay introducing technology to their own children, what does that tell you?
If you find yourself struggling with the concern that your child may get “left behind,” always remember this rule: First, do no harm. Weigh carefully the risks of electronics exposure on a growing brain versus short-lived reassurance that your child is keeping up with technological advancements. The latter is akin to “keeping up with the Joneses.”
Who will be left behind? The child who cannot concentrate.
1. “How Smart Are Monkeys?” The Tulane National Primate Research Center, 2006, http://tulane.edu/tnprc/outreach/public-faq/#q20. Lindsay Nemelka, “Apps for Animals: iPads Used in Communicating with Apes, Dolphins,” Deseret News, May 10, 2012, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765575082/Apps-for-animals-iPads-used....
2. Lex Borghans and Bas ter Weel, “Are Computer Skills the New Basic Skills? The Returns to Computer, Writing and Math Skills in Britain,” Labour Economics 11, no. 1 (February 2004): 85–98, doi:10.1016/S0927-5371(03)00054-X.
3. Julia Parish-Morris et al., “Once Upon a Time: Parent-Child Dialogue and Storybook Reading in the Electronic Era: Preschool Reading in the Electronic Era,” Mind, Brain, and Education 7, no. 3 (September 2013): 200–11, doi:10.1111/mbe.12028. Weerasak Chonchaiya and Chandhita Pruksananonda, “Television Viewing Associates with Delayed Language Development,” Acta Pædiatrica 97, no. 7 (2008): 977–82, doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.00831.x. OECD. (2015), "Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection," PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264239555-en. Vigdor Jacob, Ladd Helen. Scaling the Digital Divide: Home Computer Technology and Student Achievement. NBER Working Paper No. 16078. 2010.
4. Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, “Why Waldorf Works — Frequently Asked Questions,” accessed July 4, 2014, http://www.whywaldorfworks.org/02_W_Education/faq_about.asp.
5. Matt Richtel, “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute,” New York Times, October 22, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silico....
6. Nick Bilton, “Steve Jobs Was a Low-Tech Parent,” New York Times, September 10, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/11/fashion/steve-jobs-apple-was-a-low-tec....