May 6, 2021
In the modern world, we are surrounded by digital technology; information and entertainment are readily available to us on our screens. Children of today are growing up while constantly using a wide range of electronic devices, so much so that some people call them digital natives. This phenomenon inevitably alters our interactions, the way we spend our free time, and our approach to education.
Opinions are polarized by this shift, and while some people are seeing all the benefits and life improvements from technology, others are much more concerned about where things are going. Of course, just like with so many other things this issue has two sides to it as well.
On one hand, technology and the platforms it creates - used in the right way - can arguably be a driving force for development, awareness, and connection all around the world. Unfortunately, the meaning of using technology the “right way” is very hard to define and achieve.
How does screen time affect the brain of a child?
Screens impact us negatively when they are used as substitutes for real connections with others instead of just supplementing human interaction. The human brain constantly reorganizes neural connections, building new ones while slowly eliminating underused synapses. This is especially true for infants. It was shown that unstructured playtime is much more important for a young child’s brain than passive screen time1. Children before the age of 2 are more likely to learn and remember information from a live interaction than from a video. After this age, children can benefit from the right type of screen time, particularly when it involves interactivity. Later, screens can play a valuable role in education and learning but interactivity stays an important factor in terms of effectiveness. The most beneficial approach is actually a mix of onscreen and offscreen experiences - the more divers the better - including opportunities where kids’ minds can wander.
However, the plastic nature of the brain at a young age makes games, social media networks, and other screen-displayed digital platforms extremely dangerous for children. Practically all of this technology targets the so-called reward system of the brain, encouraging users to engage more and more until they ultimately develop an addiction. These mechanisms involve neural pathways that evolutionarily have a role in motivation and reinforcement of physiological and social needs like eating, succeeding, or connecting with others. Every time we practice these activities, a group of neurons releases dopamine (the “happy hormone”) causing a low-level euphoria. This process pairs with the activation of the GABA-erg inhibitory system that suppresses the effect of other – distracting – stimuli and deepens the impact. Activities or substances that can over-activate this system cause addiction. An American survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that kids between 8 and 18 years of age devote an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day to entertainment media usage2. It seems safe to say that unlimited screen access tends to make people more passive, especially younger children, whose self-control system is not fully developed, leaving them susceptible to obsessive behaviors. The obvious consequence of constantly being focused on a screen is the lack of space and time for imagination and creativity. Social interactions become limited or are rechanneled into the virtual space at an age where kids are supposed to develop social skills. Additionally, parents using their phones or computers during family time can give the kids a sense of being ignored, negatively affecting their confidence and self-esteem.
Other reasons to avoid screen overuse
There are several additional health related disadvantages of too much screen time. According to a recently published review article - written by Neza Stiglic and Russell M. Viner3 - excessive screen usage is associated with both inactivity and higher energy intake (snacking) that leads to obesity with subsequential health and social consequences.
Screens are also interfering with sleep which is essential for neural development and storing information. Many teens stay up late texting, gaming, or watching TV shows. But even when they finally go to bed, they are unable to get good quality sleep, since the blue light emitted by screens can disrupt sleep patterns by suppressing the secretion of a hormone called melatonin. This can lead to altered mood, depression-like symptoms, and behavioral problems. Additionally, since the brain processes and stores information as long-term memory during sleep, this can negatively affect the educational performance of students. Furthermore, studies reported that reading from screens had a negative effect on reading performance compared to reading from a physical piece of paper4.
So, what can we do as users, parents, or teachers? First of all, setting screen time limits for our kids – as well as for ourselves – is advisable to aid the development of healthy and responsible usage. We need to set aside quality time for family bonding, to be together physically and mentally without distraction, and also teach the importance of these events to children. Practicing mindfulness can also be helpful. Fortunately, many tech companies have realized the negative consequences of overconsumption and have made the first steps toward improving this issue. Our phone can inform us about how much time we have spent looking at our screen, and other applications can actually limit our screen time. We can also set up a time when the color tone of our screen shifts towards the warmer range decreasing blue light emission.
Why always have a screen after all?
However, the real game changer may be the invention of screenless digital technology. Contrary to popular belief, digital technology does not need to be associated with screens. In fact, the first computers and computer-like solutions had no screens whatsoever and technology has kept evolving ever since. Now, it is feasible to form a bridge between real experiences and the tremendous potential that digital technology can offer.
At Mastory, we believe that the well-adjustable nature of digital technology and the information it can provide about students’ performance is going to be essential in future education. Therefore, we are working on solutions that take full advantage of technological advancements while prioritizing reduced screen time. Our company develops analog-like digital devices using IoT technology (Internet of Things). The difficulty level of learning tasks can be adjusted and optimized for every child, ensuring the flow experience. We apply these tools as part of interactive storytelling and playful tasks that draw kids in, motivating them by bringing out their creative sides. In addition, with the use of these tools, our platform is prepared to address difficult times such as the pandemic we are currently experiencing. When teachers are forced to manage schooling from a distance, our system makes it possible for them to maintain the same quality of education. This science-based approach is equipped to overcome the challenges of the modern era and revolutionize learning while also providing real experience, adventure, and connection for the children.