Screens and Children

A revolution encompassing all humanity. Nothing will be as it once was. We are facing some real mutants. — psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik

Screen Baby
Screen Baby

Teachers and parents know that today’s children are not quite like their predecessors. Much has been said about the impact of digitally powered  screens on the capabilities, attitudes, and habits of today’s young people. The views fall into three categories: appreciation of new talents, horror at the current state of childhood, and simple resignation.

Babies are born into a world of “screens”. Some indications suggest that at school age children will spend five hours a day using one. In college, they will use a laptop to send over 80 text messages a day.

The optimistic observers see “digital natives” who are curious, energetic, fluid, and rapid. They point out that new technology anxiety goes back to Socrates and his fear that writing would adversely affect people’s memory.

Nonetheless, Oxford neurology professor Susan Greenfield claims, “When they surf the Web or play on the Web, their brain, which is under construction, is exposed to an activity that is so intense that it disrupts their development.” This can result in difficulties concentrating, communicating with others, projecting themselves, and lack of empathy. Some claims have even been made about a general decline in IQ. (This is a contentious assertion. For an intelligent discussion of our cognitive history see James Flynn’s Ted Talk.)

Other researchers examine the effects of different tools on the brains of children having observed that pianist- and violinist-brains are imprinted differently. Unlike the brain of the “print” era (reflective, linear, slow, accumulating intelligence) the screen brain is more fluid, rapid, fragmented, and automatic. These changes correspond to a shift in the location of brain activity from the pre-frontal cortex (site of self-awareness, judgment, and abstraction) to the posterior regions, involving visual and sensorial parts of primary intelligence.

Other brain-based concerns focus on the addictive use of screens. Excessive use (according to some, more than nine hours per week) leads to an increase in the size of the brain’s reward system. Some research shows that children addicted to screens secrete dopamine in a way similar to other addicts.

There are other fears as well. A child addicted to screens may be less motivated to exercise his body or his imagination, to produce his own mental images, to amuse himself, or to tolerate suffering or frustration. He may no longer know how to play, an activity essential to developing imagination, a sense of humor, and ultimately, a means of avoiding depression.

Parents, and many others, accept the proliferation of screens as simply inevitable and a sometimes cure for children’s boredom. The take-away from all of this may be that the human brain, like all other elements of our physiological, psychological, and societal structures, evolves in response to changing times. This raises the question, “What is it about the nature of our times that favors brains that are more curious, energetic, fluid, and rapid as opposed to reflective, linear, slow, and intelligence accumulating ?” Educators must wonder, as well, what does teaching entail when the basic learning apparatus has changed from the days of their youth.

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