Screen time: Finding the right balance, Part 2

January 11, 2018

In the first article of this series, we discussed the concept of neuroplasticity and how recent research has discovered that time spent online (“screen time”) changes the activity patterns in our brains fairly dramatically. The neuropathways in our brain, which are responsible for how we communicate and socialize, how we cope with life’s obstacles, and even how we focus and concentrate, can be influenced, and either positively or negatively affected, because of this neuroplasticity.

“If you’ve ever taken away your child’s video game console or smartphone, the way in which he copes with this punishment may have a lot to do with how his brain is wired.  A child with healthy coping and emotional skills will naturally become upset or disappointed by the consequence, while a child with unhealthy coping and emotional skills may go into a fit of rage.” – T. Kersting

Difficult issues can flow from too much time spent on devices, such as difficulty interacting in socially-acceptable ways with others, or even struggling to maintain proper eye contact when conversing.   Scientists and researchers talk about neural pruning – the brain’s way of weeding out pathways that are used less often.  This is a natural and often necessary process, but it can also become deleterious.  If our children spend most of their time communicating through abbreviated texts and short tweets rather than face-to-face, their brains will “weed out” the neural pathways needed for strong face-to-face communication.  Since today’s educational structures promote lots of collaborative group work and cooperative social interactions, and since colleges and jobs require applicants to go through the interviewing process, strong personal communication skills are vital for most young people.  Many employers and college admissions departments will tell you how important social skills and charisma are, but sorely lacking in today’s applicants.  Perhaps you, yourself, have experienced a diminution in kid’s coping or communication skills, which could be a result of the neural pruning that is happening from too much time on devices, disconnected from the “real world”.

“We need to make sure that our children are developing in their natural habitat, the physical world around them.  Children are meant to be playing outside with other children, getting dirty and scraping their knees. Their imaginations beg them to stare at the sky and make shapes out of clouds. That is what they were born to do.” – T. Kersting

One thing that we as educators and parents need to be cognizant of is the impact of electronic devices on our children’s brains.  We can start by looking at some fairly recent research by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Their 2004 study found that children in the 8 – 18 age range spent, on average, about six and a half hours per day using electronic media.  Four years later, their next study determined that average usage had increased to seven and a half hours per day, and that’s seven days a week.  What happened in that four-year span to increase this usage by over an hour a day?  The birth of social media.

In subsequent articles, we will discuss the impact of social media, family interaction, and how to be selective with the content of your child’s screen time.  In the meantime, one thing you can try at home is to ask your child to sit in total silence every day for fifteen minutes, without any distractions present, especially no electronic devices. This can begin to train the muscles of attention, focus, and connection to one’s own body and real-world surroundings.   If you are familiar with meditation, you can try teaching it to your child.  This, in and of itself, can be a good way to start to build appreciation in your child of the natural world, of being comfortable with silence and with one’s own thoughts and feelings.  It’s a small step, but an important one.

-John Heffron, Lower School Principal

*excerpts from Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids by Thomas Kersting




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