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Time for a Digital Detox

A mother and father with two toddlers sit ever so quietly in a nice restaurant. No fussing, no whining. It all seems so serene... Look more carefully and you notice the youngsters with their heads down, immersed in their tablets. So what exactly is the problem here?

Harried parents in North America and Europe are resorting to these ‘digital pacifiers’ in ever-greater numbers, allowing technology to intrude more into our children’s daily lives. It seems so easy to give a child a mobile phone or tablet and have them entertained for hours. We even have baby proof iPad covers and iPotties that include built-in iPad stands. Yet experts agree, there must be limits or we risk harming our children’s brain development in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.

The numbers are staggering. A recent study by Common Sense media reports that in the US, children ages NB to eight have doubled their technology usage from 2011 to 2013. Likewise, the amount of time they spend on these devices has tripled. In the European Union, things are no different. The London School of Economics notes, “The substantial increase in usage by very young children has not yet been matched by research exploring the benefits and risks of their online engagement.” Improved access to mobile media devices and applications has underpinned these changes. Sadly, the most common activities cited in these studies are playing games or watching videos.

Still, this begs the question: What is wrong with our children growing up using technology in an ever more ‘wired’ world? Experts, such as Larry Rosen, a research psychologist and educator, break it down into several areas of concern. Greater usage of technology gives children less time to engage in creative time and play. It also prevents the active brain from calming down, which is a necessary process. Lastly, a child in front of a screen engages less with real people and the physical world. The consequences are not pretty.

There is no denying the seductive appeal of an educational app or e-Learning on a tablet. Yet research to support any benefits from these tools is sorely lacking. Likewise, a child’s play is structured by the program and no longer open-ended. These limitations on play and learning can be significant. Educators who do long-term research are noting a significant decrease in younger children’s creativity.

True creativity comes from freedom to simply ‘play’ and let the mind wander. Scientists have found a Default Mode Network that operates when children daydream and let their minds wander. According to Rachel Longford, from the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, “The value of unstructured play for cognitive development can’t be overstated.” This is when the truly ‘ah-ha’ creative moments are born.

We have also come to devalue ‘downtime.’ Excessive screen time deprives a child of necessary brain calming. The brain needs a break as it cycles from activity to rest. When the brain calms down, a state of involuntary attention is achieved, and this is much less activating and energy sapping. The Default Mode Network is therefore enabled, which fosters creativity.

The two dimensional world of the screen is also no substitute for real interaction with the physical world and real interaction with other people. Children must have opportunities to explore, experiment and engage with their physical environment. In this manner, they employ all the senses, while activating and solidifying neural connections in their developing brains. This happens less in front of a screen.

Further, from an emotional standpoint, true social intelligence comes from interaction with others. There is no nuance or feedback associated with a smiley emoticon. Children who are excessively screen dependent lose their sense of context in interpersonal interaction and have reduced ability to evaluate the impact of their message. This bodes poorly for the development of future socialization skills.

Like bad tasting medicine, the solutions are not necessarily pleasant, but they will make a child’s life richer and fuller. The first step is to reduce screen time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that “television and other media should be avoided for infants and children under age two. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens. Children and teens should engage with entertainment media for no more than one or two hours per day, and that should be high-quality content. It is important for kids to spend time on outdoor play, reading, hobbies and using their imaginations in free play.” For older children, screen time should be limited and monitored. Rosen provides a simple prescription: “For every minute of tech use, there should be an equivalent of five minutes spent doing something else.” When appropriate alternatives are presented, these guidelines can be easier to follow. It isn’t hard to find effective substitutes for screen time.

Surprisingly, experts suggest we revert back to what worked many years ago. These include classics such as Lego kits, knitting, building blocks, Play-Doh and handwriting exercises, to name just a few. It would be easy to dismiss these activities as Luddite, yet real evidence justifies their use. Dr. Howard Gardner, an educational researcher, notes that knitting requires the use of both hands. Hence, both sides of the brain are engaged and performing a rhythmic activity that facilitates the development of language skills, enhances concentration and improves math abilities. A robust scientific study from the University of Washington found that block playing increased language scores in lower income children while reducing screen time. Play-Doh provides active learning experiences and supports children’s growth and intellectual development.

Handwriting still matters. Unfortunately, most schools are quick to teach and promote keyboard proficiency. Yet there is evidence to suggest that different forms of handwriting stimulate and promote different neural networks.

Virginia Berninger, a psychologist at the University of Washington, has shown when children compose text by hand, they expressed more ideas with a broader vocabulary than when the same task was performed on a keyboard. Cursive writing has been felt to help foster self-control.

Certainly, there is still merit in exposing young children to these varied activities.

Screen-based mobile technology is not going away. However, the message is clear. The days of unlimited technology exposure, particularly in younger children, must come to an end. Achieving an appropriate balance takes concentrated effort on the part of parents and educators. There are simply too many good alternatives for us to ignore.

Dr. Brian Whitestone is a local oral/maxillofacial surgeon, and an aspiring writer. He has written a book, Thinkerox: A Brain in a Box, which is a great starting point for reflecting on the influence of technology in our children’s lives. 

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