November 1, 2018

Screen Time, Attention, and Growing Minds

By Devon MacEachron

Screen Time, Attention, and Growing Minds

There have been a number of alarming articles in the popular press lately reporting that tech moguls and Silicon-valley types impose far stricter rules on their children’s use of screens than most of us do. They do this because they know how addictive screens are designed to be and fear for their children’s growing minds.

A 10/29/18 article in the N.Y. Times headlined “Silicon Valley Wary of the ‘Devil’ in Our Phones” quoted Chris Anderson (tech creds: former editor of Wired magazine, founder of, and CEO of a robotics and drone company) as describing how addictive screens are by saying: “On the scale between candy and crack cocaine, it’s closer to crack cocaine.” As parents, he and his wife “thought we could control it” but “this is beyond our power to control. This is going straight to the pleasure centers of the developing brain.” Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, who does not have children of his own but does have influence over his nephew, does not want him on social media. Bill Gates didn’t allow his children to have cellphones until they turned 14 and his wife Melissa wishes they’d waited longer (the average age for a child getting their first phone is 10). Steve Jobs would not let his young children near an iPad. The Times points out: “the people who are closest to a thing are often the most wary of it.”

What people in tech know that we may not be as aware of is how cleverly addictive video games, apps, and social media have been designed to be. They are designed to tap into the pleasure centers of the brain, and they do so in a way that’s hard to replicate in the non-digital world. When a child gets accustomed to the kind of rapid-fire reward system of gaming, YouTubes, and social media they may be less likely to: read a book, which requires considerable patience and offers no bells and whistles; go outside and explore nature; do something creative; and seek out social companionship.

I fear they may be missing out on so much of what makes life rich.

Scarier still is the possibility that screen time is actually re-wiring our children’s brains. As children develop from birth to adulthood an important process called synaptic pruning is happening. Infants are born with huge numbers of synapses (points of contact) between brain cells. This is inefficient, so the brain prunes the connections it doesn’t need and reinforces (through myelination) the ones it does. This process is all driven by experience – by exposure to the environment. Repeated experiences strengthen connections. Connections that aren’t used are pruned away. This means that how children spend their time can have important, lifelong ramifications. Repeated behaviors can become biologically compelled habits.

A piece by NPR titled “Heavy Screen Time Rewires Young Brains” described a study with mice in which young animals were exposed to sounds and lights similar to those in a video game for 6 hour a day during development. At maturity, the exposed animals showed “dramatic changes everywhere in the brain” compared to a typically developing group. The changes suggested that the brains of the “video game” exposed mice were “wired up at a much more baseline excited level." As a result, they needed much more sensory stimulation to get the brain's attention. Perhaps this explains why children who spend a lot of time on screens find it harder to pay attention to a book or a lesson in school. These activities are nowhere near as exciting as what they’ve grown accustomed to on-screen. Their brains need a baseline of greater excitement to pay attention.

Take this phenomenon and imagine the impact on a child who has ADHD and is already wired to have difficulty paying attention.

This is anecdotal, but in my assessment practice I feel I can often predict certain aspects of a child's behavior before I meet them based on their parent's responses to questions I ask about screen time use. If the child spends a lot of time on-screen, their reading achievement will typically be lower and their attention levels weaker.

If you’re as alarmed as I am, consider imposing the kind of strict guidelines Silicon-valley experts do:

• No cell phone until the summer before high school
• No screens in bedrooms – including lap-tops used for homework
• No social media until age 13
• Network-level content blocking
• All screen time enforced by a parent-controlled Wi-Fi shut-off system

I must confess to not having been near as successful at this as I wish I had been when my children were young. But if I'd known then what I know now, I would have tried a lot harder.

Suggested reading:

Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber” by Joe Clement and Matt Miles.

"Disconnected: How To Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids" by Thomas J Kersting.


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