The Impact of Digital Technology on Children: Part 2

Dr. John Davies, Head of School
In Part 2 of this Pulse blog post, Dr. John Davies, Head of School sheds light about the addictive facets of digital and social media, multitasking and cognitive function, distractibility, and shares strategies for you and your children on how to manage screen time and disengage from technology.
For as long as there has been research on the impact of media there have been concerns around addiction. The reality is that you can be addicted to anything, even reading. The questions around addiction and digital media have become more focused in recent years for a number of reasons including the ubiquitous 24/7 nature of the electronic media environment and brain research and addiction studies. Young people today have the potential to be connected to screen technology literally day and night and some, in fact, are. There is a natural tendency to want to check your social media when it is always available to you. The question becomes when is enough, enough? The American Psychiatric Association has identified an “Internet gaming disorder” to explain the addiction of some heavy users of video games. No doubt advances in digital technology have led to the creation of video games which are increasingly more and more complex and realistic and subsequently more engaging to players. I’m certainly not suggesting that video games are bad. In fact, video games can be powerful educational tools that improve everything from higher order thinking to hand eye coordination.

In her Psychology Today article, “Why We're All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google”, behavioral psychologist and author, Dr. Susan Weinschenk Ph.D., explains that some of these forms of mediated experiences can get us caught up in a biochemical feedback loop that keeps us going back for more.   Weinschenk notes that until recently, dopamine was thought to control the pleasure system. She writes, “Instead of dopamine causing you to experience pleasure, the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. From an evolutionary stand-point this is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn, and survive.” As a result we can turn our “seeking” attention to digital media like texting and Googling and get ourselves caught in a dopamine loop that keeps us wanting more. Weinschenk explains: “With the internet, twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into google. Want to see what your colleagues are up to? Go to LinkedIn. It's easy to fall into a dopamine induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text.”[1] A recent Andres Oppenheimer article highlighted the growing concern around addiction and tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Currently there is a $57 million campaign, The Truth about Tech, created by a former Silicon Valley tech firm employees to educate parents and students about tech addiction. According to Oppenheimer this addiction is not simply an accidental byproduct of heavy digital media use. “What makes his campaign different is that its founders are accusing Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies of intentionally creating applications aimed at making us tech addicts. Tech addiction is not an unwanted by-product of technology, but a deliberate result of what these companies do, they say.”[2]

For some time I subscribed to the myth of multitasking. I believed that the young brains of today’s students fed a regular diet of digital media coming from multiple sources and directions simultaneously could process all that stimulation and literally be able to do two or more things at once. I chalked up the fact that I was never able to do it (and I certainly tried) to the fact that my brain had already exhausted its reserve of neuroplasticity. In reality, multitasking while trying to perform complex cognitive tasks is really about playing a game of distractibility and “task switching”. Just a few weeks ago while I was sitting at a red light at the corner of 96th and Biscayne Blvd I witnessed something quite extraordinary. It was early evening so there was rush hour traffic. I looked up and saw a person pushing a stroller with a baby across the street while texting. I was immediately taken aback and wondered how someone could send a text message and monitor major traffic at the same time? The reality is you can’t. As it turns out the brain is really designed to do one thing at a time. Certainly we can perform some routine tasks simultaneously. For example, I’m able to talk to my 85 year old mom on the phone while I’m barbecuing on the grill. There are occasional gaps in the conversation and sometimes the chicken gets overcooked, but the whole experience is pretty productive. When it comes to more complex cognitive tasks we are fooling ourselves. Multitasking can sometimes makes us feel like we are accomplishing more, but the research suggests that we make more errors and often take more, not less, time getting what we want accomplished.[3]

Clearly, young people buy into the myth of multitasking and we have to do a better job of educating our children as well as ourselves about multitasking. According to James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media nearly two-thirds of teens report that they don't think watching TV or texting while doing homework has any impact on their ability to study and learn.[4] A major concern regarding adults and students alike is operating a motor vehicle while using a cell phone. In a recent study 42% of high school students who drove in the past 30 days reported sending a text or email while driving.[5] A 2016 Liberty Mutual Insurance survey of 2,500 teenagers revealed that almost 70 percent admitted to using social media apps while they drive.[6] This data is very disturbing when one considers that the National Transportation Safety Board suggests that texting while driving is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level three times the legal limit![7]

Given the current concerns around screen technologies how do we respond in a way that highlights the positive features and lessens the legitimate concerns around the impact of digital technologies. The ubiquitous 24/7 nature of “the screen” can be a challenge. Nevertheless here are a few strategies that can be helpful.
  • Model good media use habits for your children. Let them see you disengage, especially during time with the family. Be intentional in your use of screen media. Avoid getting caught in the “dopamine feedback loop”!
  • Monitor your children’s use of screen media, especially younger children. The visual/iconic nature of screen technologies means that younger children don’t need to be literate to explore the Internet. Limit your children’s time each day with digital technologies. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) provides guidelines on age appropriate media use, as well as an online tool kit to help parents create a family media plan.
  • Explore your children’s media choices. While there are lots of outstanding educational tools out there for students of all ages just because a website says that it is educational doesn’t guarantee that it is either an educationally sound or appropriate website. With a little searching you can find plenty of worthwhile educational websites that are developmentally appropriate for your children.
  • Talk to your children on a regular basis about their media use. Avoid framing your conversations as “the media are bad.” This is the fastest way to shut down a productive conversation.
By all accounts digital media technologies will continue to evolve ushering even more and bigger changes in today’s culture. These technologies have the potential to transform the world AND human beings in the process. Digital technologies are tools. How we use them and the ways in which we allow them to transform us and our children is up to us.
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