Technology Abuse Stunting Brain Growth

Technologies are revered for having made our lives easier.  The conveniences they afford us seem to be endless!  But is it the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing?  Are we too busy staring at the computer screen or texting at the wheel to notice what it is doing to us? The past two decades have seen our society slowly but surely start pulling the drapes closed on the outside world, and losing ourselves in virtual reality.  The biggest casualties? Our children.

So how did we get here?

It’s impossible to draw a line in the sand that divides “before” and “after” the state of collective attention deficit disorder that has befallen us.  It’s not like we fell down a hole like Alice and suddenly our lives were lived in… unreality. No, it crept up on us slowly.  And we allowed these creations to become such a part of our lives as to be comparable to a fifth (or sixth, or seventh) appendage. 

Just another naysayer…

No one can honestly deny the necessity of modern technology.  Technology has brought us treatments of diseases, better DNA analysis and better healthcare to name a few things.  But aren’t we going a little overboard in some arenas? I mean, eating is necessary, but morbid obesity is definitely not condoned.  I guess there just isn’t a large enough market for it.

iCrave

Am I drawing a comparison between technology overuse and morbid obesity? Absolutely.  There is some truth to the old adage “less is more”, and with adult Internet addiction being argued for inclusion in the newest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, substituting technology for organic life is the new norm.  But with all of us having our noses stuck in our various technological fancies: maintaining social lives on Facebook; planning our lives on Blackberries; pursuing love on Lavalife; and catching up on Lost and ER -what are our children doing?

Collateral Damage

Our children are getting sucked into the lifestyle right along with us.  The only difference is that we had no idea the effect it would have on developing minds and bodies.  Many people still don’t know. The culture of the techno-babysitter has spun way out of our control, and with information just now coming to the fore about the consequences of technology abuse, for some children it may be “too much” too late.

Baby-ADD

Let’s start from the beginning.  Parents were thrilled with the introduction of Disney-owned Baby Einstein.  The DVDs, marketed for babies as young as 3 months, were said to make babies smarter by encouraging learning of language and numbers.  Parents snapped up the DVDs, excited to see their little Einstein grow and for a long while, we bought it.  Park your baby in front of the TV and voila! He’ll be the smartest kid in class by grade one!  In all truth, research showed that children who had watched such “educational” DVDs showed poorer motor and language skills than children who had spent their first years… well, being regular babies.

What’s the connection?

So why does watching a few hours of TV make an infant essentially dumber than its TV-free counterparts?  It goes beyond the usage of the phrase “use it or lose it” and becomes more of an abstract “make it or break it”.  Growing babies need more than just to stare at a television screen in order to evolve into healthy toddlers.  In fact, sitting babies in front of the TV denies them the three most critical factors involved in their development: movement, touch and connection to other humans.  If healthy development is not fostered, we’re turning out broken children.

From Babies to Toddlers

Studies show that toddlers watch 4.5 hours of TV per day.  And why wouldn’t they? Back when they were growing Einsteins, they were watching an average of 2.2 hours per day.  Parents may see Treehouse and Mario Cart as cheap and effective babysitters, but if their daycare center proved to be detrimental to their toddler’s development would they continue to utilize their services? My guess would be no.  But for each hour that a toddler watches TV, they will have 10% more attention problems by the age of seven.  Not a 10% chance of having attention problems, 10% more attention problems.  Per hour.  Add to that the vicious environment of the ADD “burning times” and the increasing pressure on children to perform academically and we’re giving children golden tickets to misery.  Not only are we setting our children up for attention and literacy problems, but we’re also setting them up for a plethora of other problems as well.  Whether or not we recognize it, when a child watches high stimulus television or video games (whether first or secondhand) it causes an acceleration of the autonomic nervous system, releasing adrenaline and other chemicals that stress the body.  Is it any wonder that child psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and bipolar disorder are on the rise?  We’re also engendering social problems: with the focus on technology, which provides mainly exclusive and introverted activities, skills like reading facial expressions and understanding gestures are left wanting.  We then catapult these poorly socialized children into classes of 20 or more other children, and expect them to thrive.  Some may scoff at the idea that just 4.5 hours of television would create such speed bumps to a child’s development and claim that those children manifesting these issues are simply troubled from birth.  Others say it’s time to stop classifying children’s mental “disturbances” as biological “illnesses” and start facing the fact that we are failing our children in a major way.

They Grow Like Weeds…

School age is where the effects of our technology-overdose truly begin to rear its ugly head.  What starts as an innocent distraction so mom and dad can get some chores done becomes a lifestyle.  Suddenly parents realize that not only can television distract their children at home, they can also install TV’s in their vehicles and not have to be badgered by the incessant “are we there yet?”  They can give their children hand-held video games and not be glared at by complete strangers in a crowded restaurant when junior decides he’s sick of sitting still and breaks out into a 3rd degree tantrum, they can put a TV in their daughters bedroom that will lull her to sleep so that they can have some peace and quiet before bed.  To the bedraggled parent who just wants a moments rest, these methods may seem innocent, but the effects are alarming at best.

Wired for speed

And it’s true, not only are these children not learning the self-control and discipline to sit in a car or at the dinner table without acting up- among other things, but our parenting-shortcuts are rewiring their brains in an enormous way.  Their frequent exposure to television, video games, and computers is training their brains to be ultra-sensitive to environmental input, and causing them to have short attention spans in real-world situations that don’t supply instant gratification.  To combat children’s growing ADD, schools and parents are fighting fire with fire by purchasing more technology to better hold their attention, and the cycle goes on.

Can you hear me now?

And what a vicious cycle it is.  So vicious that without knowing it, we could be changing the course of society.  For one thing, with technology taking over our households and providing us with solitary tasks and self-contained activities not requiring socialization, the home unit is crumbling.  It’s been noted that Canadian parents spend and average of 3.5 minutes per week having meaningful conversation with their children:  time spent utilizing various medias is negatively related to time spent with family members- isn’t it obvious?  Once again, normal communication skills taught and honed by the family are not laying solid neural tracks in the brain.  Sure children can tell you what LOL, TTYL or BRB mean, but once they are unplugged, how might they fare then?

On The Front Lines

Even with the communication disconnect, the growth of disorders (developmental and psychological) and the weakening of the family unit, the most disturbing change yet is the altering of frontal lobe development.  Every adult’s gripe about youth can basically be explained by the fact that their frontal lobes- responsible for judgment, perspective, ability to delay gratification, predict outcomes, and other adult-like processes- are underdeveloped.  Why is this important? You ask?  Because overuse of interactive media has been found to stunt frontal lobe growth in adolescents and in extreme cases (those that played 2-7 hours per day) shut down the frontal lobe completely. Can you imagine a world of perpetual immaturity? 

Life beyond the screen…

Many of us seem to have lost the concept of what life is like beyond the world of technology.  Those fortunate enough to have been born before the “technological revolution” can remember playing outside until dusk and coming home with grass-stains on their jeans and mud under their fingernails.  Before worldwide news on demand made the threat of the boogeyman force children inside, despite the fact that crime in Canada has steadily dropped since the 90’s.  Now too many children grow up inside, sheltered, and can’t imagine life without technology.  Take Brandon Crisp for example.  The 15-year-old Ontario boy ran away from home on October 13, 2008 when his parents took his favorite video game from him, worried that he had become obsessed with it.  His body was found three weeks later.  It can get a lot worse… In Ohio in 2007, a 17-year-old boy whose parents grounded him from his favorite Xbox game retaliated by taking a 9mm to their heads; wounding his father and killing his mother after asking them to close their eyes because he had “a surprise” for them.  When he ran, all he took was his precious game.  What could be so horrible about life that a youth would go to such extremes over virtual reality? And what has gone so terribly wrong that a 17-year-old boy could plan the murder of his own parents?  So many people were skeptical when critics brought the subject of video games to the table after Columbine.  And why wouldn’t they?  At first glance it doesn’t make sense that simply playing a video game could lead to such massacre.  But in light of the fact that video game addiction alters the brain- especially the area responsible for empathy and judgment, does it seem so far-fetched? 
What’s horrible about life to these children is that they don’t know what life beyond the television screen is and if they do, few have been taught to value it.
Our children are the collateral damage of a new technological world founded on ignorance.  We dove head first into the technology craze, without first considering the shallow pool of knowledge that accompanied it.  We relaxed into the idea that massive oversights like these wouldn’t happen in the 21st century: we’ve advanced.  Technology is our friend.  But friend or foe, it is our responsibility to find a healthy balance for children and for ourselves so that the massive disconnect that has been creating a rift through our society can be mended.  Remember the silly sci-fi thriller where robots take control of the world? It turns out not to be so perceptible, but just as tangible.