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How Technical Devices Influence Children's Brains

Dangers, delights, 5 do's and 5 don'ts

This guest blog, by my colleague and friend, Daniel Riseman, children's book author and President of Riseman Educational Consulting, explains the impact of excessive use of devices in, "The Reconfiguration of Children's Brains".

Digital natives fill up classrooms across the country. These are the children and adolescents who have grown up online with their iPads, smartphones, and gaming consoles. Their free time is monopolized by their handheld devices; rather than play outside, many young people are fixated on their virtual worlds. However, escaping reality comes with serious consequences. Neuroscientists have discovered many associated dangers that come with the overuse of online activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics has instituted strict guidelines per a child’s exposure to technology: infants should have no contact; 3-5 year olds are allocated one hour per day, and 6-18 year olds are allotted two hours per day (“Preschool Matters,” p. 2). In spite of these guidelines, young people, on average, are online four times the recommended allowance. They have become dependent on the online world because such activity allows them to escape from stress and unpleasant feelings, and this escapism can become addictive. The fast pace of online activity is not only altering the way young people’s brains process information, but such activity is also physically changing their brains. The overuse of online activity is reconfiguring children’s brains and forcing the field of education to adjust accordingly.

Many doctors urge parents to keep their toddlers away from handheld devices. Research has revealed that overexposure to online devices, such as iPads and smartphones, can lead to attention deficit disorders. The frantic pace of the Internet can result in the brain’s pruning neuronal tracts to the frontal lobe, an area that regulates emotion (Sowell, Thompson, Tessner, and Toga, p. 8820). Toddlers who frequently engage with technology tend to struggle with their self-regulation and have more tantrums, on average, than toddlers who do not interact with technology (Ward, p. 2). According to Dr. Richard Graham, who oversees a technology addiction program, toddlers “react with tantrums and uncontrollable behavior when their [devices] are taken away… they experience the same withdrawal symptoms as alcoholics or heroin addicts” (Ward, p. 3). Longitudinal studies have shown that the overuse of online activity for toddlers can result in depression and bipolar disorder as they mature (Ward, p. 4).

Many children do not view their obsession with the Internet as detrimental; rather, they believe that it has helped them become effective multitaskers. However, neuroscientists have proven that the “human brain does not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another” (“Understanding the Distracted Brain,” p. 5). Handheld devices have resulted in students with shorter attention spans who chronically pay “continuous partial attention” to the world around them (Jenkins, p. 2). According to digital journalist Leonard Brody, “People’s ability to focus on long detailed content has shrunk. The Internet is a snacking medium; people only consume bits and pieces” (Jenkins, p. 3). This state of mind places the brain in constant crisis as it is continually on alert for new information that will bring on the next dose of dopamine (Horstman, p. 58). Neuroscientists have shown that online activity excites “the neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain's pleasure centers,” resulting in Internet Use Disorder (IUD) for millions of young people (Davidow, p. 2). According to the American Psychiatric Association, children with “IUD have a preoccupation with the Internet, withdrawal symptoms when the substance (Internet) is no longer available, loss of other interests, and unsuccessful attempts to quit” (Walton, p. 2). Other researchers have discovered that the overuse of online devices places children in a “digital fog” in which they feel fatigued, irritable, and distracted (Small and Vorgan, p. 19). To combat this mental burnout, the brain secretes more cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones increase energy levels in the short term, they lead to depression and alter neural circuitry for self-regulation over the long run (Small and Vorgan, p. 19). The facts are frightening: one in six children has a diagnosed mental illness, and aggressive and unmanageable behavior has become the norm at many schools across the country (Rowan, p. 5).

While many neuroscientists believe that the overuse of online activity is a dangerous phenomenon, there are some researchers who view this overuse in a positive light. To these researchers, even though young people are having less face-to-face interaction with each other, they are frequently interacting with people across the world in a virtual manner. As a result, they are rarely alone or isolated and feel more at ease: “Online, social presence and intimacy levels can be controlled… a lack of face-to-face communication online may decrease self-consciousness and social anxiety, which could facilitate pro-social behavior and enhance online friendship formation” (Morahan-Martin and Schumacher, p. 660). Additionally, these scientists have demonstrated that the frequent use of technology has helped developed neural circuitry in young people that allows for spurts of intense concentration: “Rather than simply catching ‘digital ADD,’ many [young people] are developing neural circuitry that is customized for rapid and incisive spurts of directed concentration” (Manfield, p. 2). These researchers have also demonstrated that video gaming leads to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention, and that gaming can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing” (Horstman, p. 64). Even violent gaming has led to significant increases in a young person’s visual attention and memory (Horstman, p. 64).

In spite of the aforementioned results, the majority of neuroscientists believe that the overuse of online activity is harming children. Spending hours in the virtual world has led to the deterioration in a child’s ability to read people’s facial expressions and understand emotional context (Child and Vorgan, p. 6). As a result, social interactions have become more awkward, and there is greater misinterpretation during face-to-face meetings. These misunderstandings can escalate in children, from problems comprehending classroom lessons to bullying among peers. Children’s addiction to online activity has resulted in less interaction with other kids outside of school, and according to developmental psychologist Dr. Peter Gray, children who do not interact much with other kids have a higher likelihood of becoming aggressive and selfish adults (Horstman, p. 66). The dramatic rise in school shootings may be directly connected to such isolation as these young shooters follow a gaming-like script as they ruthlessly murder their classmates.

Many educators struggle to understand their students’ thinking. Impatient and hyperactive students are not simply going through a phase; this lack of behavioral regulation has become hardwired in their brains. As a result, teachers have had to modify lessons to increase the pace of the learning. The days of independent reading have vanished in many schools as students crave for constant activity. Many teachers have incorporated the flipped classroom, allowing students the freedom to watch the lesson at their own pace at home and giving them greater control over their learning. This style of learning allows teachers to use class time to focus “on cooperative learning [and] project-based learning” to ensure that students learn how to effectively work with their peers (Slavin, p. 240). However, teachers are not surrendering to the Internet. Many teachers forbid handheld devices in their classrooms; they refuse to compete with them. Teachers are also working with parents to limit the amount of screen time students have outside of class. Combating the online addition will require effective communication and collaboration with parents to help students free themselves from their obsession. While knowing how to navigate the virtual world is important, students still need to be able to communicate with others in a face-to-face manner. Teachers are doing their best to combat reality: "Kids are spending so much time communicating through technology that they’re not developing basic communication skills” (Johnson, p. 2). Teachers know that communication is not just about words, and through group projects and collaboration, they are doing their best to help students understand the extraordinary power of face-to-face communication."

5 Dos:

  1. Do limit the amount of time on devices.
  2. Do be clear about when use is permitted. Predictable routines protect the peace. Once negotiations cease and rules cement, people adjust to reality with less protest.
  3. Do encourage time in the natural world. "Play outside" or pull from within is an option.
  4. Do have conversations face to face, over the counter, in transit, at a meal with friends and family. About what? Day residue, dreams, current events, songs, that thing you think about...
  5. Do find engaging projects that require in-the-flesh, five-sense, non-tech hand/brain activity, solo or accompanied.

5 Don'ts:

  1. Don't feel guilty if you have to battle with your child to get the above to happen
  2. Don't give in, because compassionate authority in your home serves all
  3. Don't backpeddle due to complaints of boredom. First there's nothing, then there's something. Deep engagement brings joy but one must get into it.
  4. Don't fall for the "It's an emergency! I have to have my phone."
  5. Don't worry if you cannot effect this right away. Remember Rome.
by Chloe Barron
Source: by Chloe Barron

Works Cited

Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W.Norton, 2010. Print.

Davidow, Bill. “Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction.” The Atlantic. 18 Jul. 2012.Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

Horstman, Judith. The Scientific American Brave New Brain. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Jenkins, Henry. “Multitasking and Continuous Partial Attention.” Aca-Fan. 9 Nov.2010.Web. 12 Nov. 2014.

Johnson, Chandra. “Face Time vs. Screen Time.” The Deseret News. 29 Aug. 2014.Web. 11Nov. 2014

Manfield, Lisa. “This is Your Brain on Technology.” Backbone Magazine. 26 Jan. 2009. Web.11 Nov. 2014.

Morahan-Martin, Janet, and Phyllis Schumacher. "Loneliness and Social Uses of the Internet."

Computers in Human Behavior. 19.6 (2003): 659-71. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.

“Preschool Matters.” National Institute for Early Education Research. Jun. 2006. Web. 11 Nov.2014.

Radziwill, Nicole M. Disconnected: Technology Addiction & the Search for Authenticity inVirtual Life. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace, 2011. Print.

Rosen, Larry D., Mark L. Carrier, and Nancy A. Cheever. Rewired: Understanding theIGeneration and the Way They Learn. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 201