Is Screen Time Rewiring Our Kids’ Brains?

Photo by Diego Passadori on Unsplash

Is Screen Time Rewiring Our Kids' Brains?

Childhood has changed. Gone are the days of playing outside until the streetlights come on — as long as homework is done. Childhood in the internet age is often defined by screen time, or the time spent in front of a television, computer or mobile device. On average, children are spending a minimum of 48 minutes in front of a screen daily. Meanwhile, 42 percent of parents say their young children now have their very own tablet or device, which can alter developmentental milestones in the youngest screen fans.

It's also been shown that having instant access to the collected information of the human race is detrimental to learning. Called "The Google Effect," this theory states technology has reduced the amount of information that adults actually learn — because it's all available at our fingertips. If Google is rewiring the brains of adults, could screen time be doing the same for children?

Is Screen Time Good or Bad?

Researchers are divided on whether cell phones and screen time are positive or negative influences. Netflix's new show, Follow This, has an episode dedicated to the concept of tech addiction. In that episode, they spoke to Dr. Candice Odgers, who had this to say on the subject:

"Smartphones are a really easy target to blame. Anything that's consuming people's time and any type of new technology has engendered a kind of moral panic. This isn't a drug, right? This is something that provides opportunities, information. It's not all a negative story, and I think the negative story gets the most attention."

On the other side of the coin, some research has shown that too much screen time — especially cell phones and other mobile devices — can have an adverse effect on children. One study looked at MRIs of children who frequently use the internet and found that these children show a distinct decrease in brain activity. It's a big problem, but at the same time, there hasn't been enough research on the subject to determine the long-term effects of screen time in childhood.

Content Is King

When it comes down to it, what kids are watching is just as important as the time they spend in front of their screens. Instead of putting on Spongebob or Paw Patrol, the focus should be on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). That's what the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is trying to do. This organization is working to promote SEL in academics across the globe for students of all ages.

This is the kind of beneficial screen time that might prove to be the exception rather than the rule.

Rewiring Our Brains

So, is screen time rewiring our children's brains?

The answer is yes, but it's a loaded yes — because it's not always a bad thing. Educational apps and content may have a positive effect rather than a negative one, rewiring the child's brain to accept education activities better.

Screen time can be beneficial for adults, too. Developing habits is useful for rewiring an adult brain — as you learn new skills, the mind forms new pathways and literally rewires itself, so these habits become second nature.

It isn't all sunshine and roses, though. While screen time can have some benefits, it can have negative consequences, too — like making young minds dependent on screens or games for learning. Those same apps that might be teaching basic skills to young children could be impeding their development later in life.

The Dangers of Screen Addiction

Screen addiction is a growing problem — so much so that rehab facilities are popping up around the world. In some places, screen time has even cost gamers and their loved ones their lives.

One facility, based near Seattle, Washington, is called reStart. It acts like any other rehab facility — helping its participants to give up their addiction to tech by separating them from it entirely. The facility is based up in the woods, and for the first few months, participants are not allowed to use any technology at all. When they graduate from the facility, they can ease back into their normal life by first staying in an apartment with other reStart graduates and tracking their technology use, so they don't fall back into old habits.

This is currently a problem primarily for adults, but getting children started early with technology could lead to problems later in life.

The Gender Divide

As with most things, there is a considerable difference between the genders when it comes to screen addiction. Women tend to be more addicted to smartphones and other mobile screens, as well as social media. Much of the evidence is anecdotal, but one study suggests this may be because women tend to be more social creatures, so their addictions follow this trend.

Men, on the other hand, tend to be more likely to get addicted to video games and other solitary screen-based activities. This is mentioned briefly in the Netflix Follow This episode — nearly all of the patients who come to reStart to get help for their tech addiction are men, and gaming is one of the most significant problems. This problem has been recognized in scientific communities for more than a decade. Two studies published in 2008 and 2016 both came to the same conclusion — that gaming addiction is a "boy" problem.

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Trying to Fix the Problem

Some tech giants are starting to realize the problem and are trying to take steps to fix it.

"I think it's one part awareness. I think it's one part tools, and I think it's one part responsibility on the part of companies and individuals," said Sameer Samat, Google's Vice President of Product Management in an interview. While companies taking some responsibility is a step in the right direction, it isn't the only solution. Parents need to be responsible for their children's' screen time. It only becomes a problem if screen time is allowed to be unlimited. Also, parents need to be showing their children how to use a laptop, how to effectively undertake Internet searches, and help in picking out exemplary educational apps. The child should be interacting with programs with positive messages, appropriate role models and games that have essential learning skills built right into their design.

Parents Are Responsible for Monitoring Screen Time

When it comes down to it, it is up to parents and guardians to monitor and regulate their children's screen time. It can only develop into an addiction if it is allowed to continue without rules. While more studies are coming out every day about the long-term effects of screen time on children and development, there just hasn't been enough research done to come to any definitive conclusions. Cell phones may have been around for a while, but smartphones are a relatively new invention, and the screen time concerns that come with them are just as new.

This may change in the future, but a good rule of thumb is to monitor and regulate your child's screen time, so they're not spending all day glued to the screen — no matter how educational the content is.

🔴 Photo Credits by Diego Passadori on Unsplash

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