Monday, April 25, 2016

The Cure Is Going Outside

People often ask me how I feel about screen-based technology for young children. When it comes to the classroom, as soon as someone convinces me that children can learn something worthwhile -- anything worthwhile -- better via a screen than through, you know, actual hands-on experience, I'll be all for it. So far, this has not happened and since I'm all about state-of-the-art, evidence-based education, I would say I'm not a fan of screens as educational tools.

As far as home use is concerned, the American Association of Pediatrics recommends no television prior to two-years-old and strict limitations, including no TV in the bedroom, as children get older. When I was in college studying journalism, the addictive and narcotizing effects of TV viewing was already a well-known phenomenon, not to mention the other health dangers of too much TV.

When it comes to technology of the touch-screen variety, however, no one really knows because it's simply too new and there is little reliable research. Believe it or not, the iPad was only introduced in 2010 and if you're like me, you weren't an early adopter, so most of us have only had these devices in our lives for five years or so, a blip on our personal timelines, yet a lifetime for our youngest citizens. Most pediatricians are applying the "not before two-years-old" to these screens as well.  It's not based upon science, but rather caution.

No, the real science is being performed on our own children, in our own homes, and, increasingly, in our own schools, where a generation of children is being raised to "swipe," "click," and "scroll." It's doing something to their developing brains, that much we know, but we won't know what until these involuntary guinea pigs are adults. Naturally, this worries me. And I'm not the only one.

Dr. Victoria L. Dunkley, writing in Psychology Today on the explosion of major mental-health diagnoses in young children such as major depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD, and the ineffectiveness of traditional treatments such as therapy and medication, suggests that many of the symptoms can be connected to everyday use of electronics.

Children's brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn't take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Also, many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time -- internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming -- isn't harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because it's more likely to cause hyperarousal and compulsive use.

According to Dr. Dunkley, screen-time disrupts sleep, is addictive (comparing it to cocaine), provides "light at night" (which is linked to depression), creates a vicious cycle of stress reactions (which leads to a negative affect on mood), can lead to explosive or aggressive behavior, and tends to replace time spent outdoors which seems to provide a kind of antidote to too much screen time (restored attention, lower stress, and reduced aggression).

Some of Dr. Dunkley's conclusions are based upon solid research and some is more anecdotal, which is to be expected. As a person who strives to rely upon evidence, I'm still waiting. As a person who works with young children, however, I'm worried about this generation of guinea pigs. I understand, of course, that this technology is not going anywhere and an absolute ban isn't going to happen for most families. That said, it is important that we all make ourselves aware of the symptoms of an "overdose" and that at least part of the cure is going outside. 

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ericanokelby said...

What are your thoughts on if a child uder the age of 2 looks at pictures on a phone? Is this still harmful in moderation? I agree with it all and have tried to keep my daughter away from all screens as she is sensitive to begin with and I beleiev in nature being the best teacher!

Unknown said...

I'm interested in your opinion of steiner schools.TV screens didn't exist when he wrote his voluminous directions. Thank you for your deep,thoughtful effort. It's noticed!