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Screen time and your brain. 

We are all guilty. Guilty of using technology both to help better our lives and to worsen some aspects of it. But what’s wrong with it, you may ask? With extended lockdowns, most adults turn to their trusty partner (the iPhone of course) for some much-needed stimulation or maybe to divert their attention from the mundane progression of the day. And the same principle extends to children, who’ve been homebound for almost 2 years now, who now may seem permanently glued to their screens for the most part of their existence. Wear a mask they say, but here is an entire lot that comes with a mask stitched on the face and a device glued to the eyes. 

From a neurological perspective, using technology for social media (not naming the giants, but we are no strangers to the app that enables doomscrolling at 4am, hitting the big ‘like’ button, pasting a quick emoji onto somebody’s status update, while sending mindless or shall we say mindnumbing texts and forwards on messaging platforms), affects brain functions in a unique manner. Going back a little bit on the 80s and 90s campaign of “Say no to drugs” pasted on the cover of just about every Archie Comic and seen hanging as a banner in school cafeterias, these slogans were and continue to be valid. Very valid. Did you know that even the most minimal to mild usage of recreational drugs causes disruption in brain circuitry and activation and re-activation of the reward seeking behavior in humans? Does the comparison of a harmless device to a drug seem a bit extreme to you? Bear with us and keep reading, when children use a device to play a game or use an app that has an inbuilt reward system such as funky stars, a fun video or an exciting rhyme, there is increased activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention. What else has the same effect, you may ask? Slot machines and recreational drugs. 

To put it rather bluntly, it is like setting up a child’s brain to seek excitement, constant stimulation and even want to engage in risk seeking behavior. Apps, games, social networking sites work on the variable reward system of reinforcement, leaving the person hanging and hoping for the next like, cheer or song/rhyme to appear. Variable reward schedules were first introduced by the Godfather of all things behavior and psychology B.F. Skinner who discovered that if humans perceive a reward to be delivered at random (think slot machine) and if checking for the reward comes at a cost (think tokes or coins inserted into the slot machine), humans will then check for the reward habitually (Ever entered a casino and found it hard to exit?) Now somehow, app developers and social media creators discovered this behavioral principal. A child’s brain is actively developing, and a variable reward reinforcement ratio can trigger an obsessive trait or need to meet with reinforcement i.e. obsessively using the iPad, listening a song or watching a show over and over again, playing a game repeatedly etc. In short, they become little gamblers of iPad apps, YouTube videos and what not. 

 Digital devices are known to interfere with not just social behavior such as hyperactivity and social isolation, it is also a known cause of sleep problems. A well-rested child has a brain that develops to meet learning and emotional milestones, as opposed to a child who has used a device before bed, where the blue-light emitted suppresses the secretion of the hormone melatonin and goes on to disrupt the sleep cycle (applies to adults as well, time to throw the phone out of the bedroom, maybe?) Even if you swear by texting before bed or checking the latest news development before you get your shut eye, your memory and retention on the following day may take a dip while you don the Mr.Grouchy hat. Now something as mundane as checking your text messages, reading the news on the screen or checking into social media can trigger our dopamine driven desire for validation.

So, bottom line? We know devices are bad, screens are sinful pleasures, much like when fire was discovered, great to make a meal with, and terrible and devastating if left unattended. 

Similarly with devices and all things screen, your child might benefit from restricted and supervised use of the screen, possibly for his online classes? 

As for us? We can all benefit from actively having a device free slot every day! Your eyes and brain will thank you

References

AAP (2016), American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use, https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/AmericanAcademy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx.

Afifi, T. et al. (2018), “WIRED: The impact of media and technology use on stress (cortisol) and inflammation (interleukin IL-6) in fast paced families”, Computers in Human Behavior, Vol. 81, pp. 265-273, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/J.CHB.2017.12.010.

Bavelier, D., C. Green and M. Dye (2010), “Children, Wired: For Better and for Worse”, Neuron, Vol. 67/5, pp. 692-701, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/J.NEURON.2010.08.035.


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