We face unprecedented challenges trying to raise children in this face-paced digital age.
Because we have no precedence for how the virtual world impacts our children, we’ve not known what kinds of limits are reasonable, needed, or essential. Often we’re making decisions based on our children’s pleas rather than on a knowledge of the impact of the digital world on their developing brain. An important place to begin is to understand why children are so drawn both to social media and to a range of kinds of games online.
Let’s start with a little science.
Screen time affects prefrontal cortex development
The prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain develops slowly. In fact, it often does not reach maturity until the age of 26 or even 30 years old. So what’s the prefrontal cortex all about? Well, it’s essential for the following:
- and it’s where the moral compass lives within us
Anything that interferes with the prefrontal cortex development is something about which we should be very concerned. We now know that some types of internet use interfere with prefrontal cortex development. But the internet world changes swiftly. As a result, it has been difficult for researchers to keep up with just what impact it may be having. But that have made some inroads.
Screen time affects white matter development in the brain
We now know that there are some devastating effects of certain types of internet use on our children. Recent research is showing us that the white matter of the brain is developing entirely differently for youth who spend quite a bit of time online. More alarming, we are now learning that certain types of activity actually interferes with the prefrontal cortex. Knowing how to sort through these activities can help us oversee our children’s screen time more effectively. It is possible for them to safely use electronic devices without impairing the development of their brains.
Technology is designed to be addictive
We’re up against a difficult fight. Tech experts intentionally design technology to be addictive. What we know is that addictions, whether they be substance or activity based (alcohol consumption vs. gambling) all involve a sudden hit of dopamine to the brain. We also know that crystal meth, cocaine, and orgasm are 3 of the highest hits of dopamine that we ourselves can give our own brains. Right behind those 3 is the hit of dopamine that we have when we’re online and someone likes our Facebook or Instagram post, or sends us a text.
The beginnings of addiction can start when kids are as young as toddlers
The simple act of using a digital device that gives us that hit of dopamine is actually an essential building block for addiction. In children this develops very swiftly. For instance, we can look at a young child using a math program on a digital device where if the child sees the number 1 and then the number 2 and they touch the number 3, then a clown comes out on the screen and does something fun and the child is excited, parents often misinterpret what is happening. Although it looks to the casual observer that the child has learned that 1+2=3, what’s actually happening that the child has told himself that “if I know to push the right button, something really fun thing happens and makes me feel good.” What’s actually happening is that that child gets a hit of dopamine and we’re feeding the beginnings of an addiction for a child to increase the dopamine levels in their own brains by what they do online. This is a difficult pill for parents to swallow!
We must ask ourselves if we’re willing to have addicted children
A starting place for us to ask ourselves is, “At what age are we willing to have our children addicted and to what.” When we begin to understand the difference in what kinds of online activities promote addiction and which don’t, we begin to make better choices. (Apps with infinite scrolling or playing are a prime offender when it comes to addiction. Think Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, etc.)
A major interference in our own ability to look openly at screen addition in children is our own addiction to our devices
Parents often give in to the pleas of children that if you’re doing online time then why can’t I? The obvious answer to that is that it’s the same as alcohol. As an adult you may have a glass of wine with dinner, you still may clearly know that you don’t want to be giving children alcohol with their meals as well. A hit of dopamine is a hit of dopamine. It doesn’t matter whether the cause of dopamine is a physical act involving online time or drinking of a substance, the addiction comes from the dopamine. It comes from within our own brains.
When we add those two issues together: the possibility of early addiction for children coupled with a loss of development of the prefrontal cortex, we have some serious thinking to do about how we allow our children to engage online.
Screen addiction increases the longer you use technology
The troubling fact about addiction is that receiving a certain level of dopamine hit today means that child is going to want great hit a year from now, and a greater hit a year from them. Consequently, kids using screens at 8 or 9 and getting that hit from games, Instagram or snapchat, get that hit of dopamine. But the needs increase rapidly over the next few years — that’s the nature of addiction. The body acclimates to the amount it’s used to and then it needs more. And the prefrontal cortex is suffering, leaving our kids with limited capacity for:
- Impaired moral compass
One of the best antidotes for screen addiction is face-to-face contact
One of the antidotes to all this is to carefully organize children’s lives to have face-to-face compassionate contact with one another that develops the prefrontal cortex. In today’s digital world, we must all re-learn how to be present. Face-to-face contact will build real relationships. Are we saying that messaging and social media are all detrimental? No, not at all. But it’s interesting to note that often when youth think they’re connecting online, say through Facebook or Snapchat, they’re actually looking for is that hit of dopamine from any message. Because it doesn’t matter who a message is from, youth confuse connection for the addiction to the hit of dopamine they get.
We’ve assembled a list of ideas to help keep the conversation going in face-to-face contact:
- Make eye contact with one another.
- Set aside any distractions. (Put away your phone, set down your book, close your laptop, etc.)
- Ask open-ended questions. (These are questions that don’t end in yes or no, such as “What surprised you the most about…” or “What’s the best thing that happened today?”)
- Consistently plan activities together, even if it’s as simple as a daily walk to prepping dinner.
If you want even more face-to-face engagement tips, consider 5 Radical Mintues for Families. This monthly subscription provides 3 weekly activities for the whole family. Each activity lasts only about 10 minutes but helps build engagement, trust, and greater happiness for each who participates. And it’s only a $5 monthly investment!