Young brains and technology

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, and not just any old Tuesday. Happy New Year: it’s the 1st day of January, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up, children and technology. The National Institutes of Health recently released early results from a study that will span the next 10 years. It’s evaluating the impact of technology on the developing brains of young children.

The results—so far—are not good.

EICHER: Now, parents, I doubt this comes as much of a surprise. Many kids spend a lot of time on digital devices! But you may be pretty guilty yourself. If you have an iPhone, go to Settings, then have a gander at the Screen Time app. You might surprise yourself.

But WORLD Radio’s Kristen Flavin is here now with more details on what you may intuitively suspect.

KRISTEN FLAVIN, REPORTER: Children across the country are using technology at alarmingly young ages. All that screen time got scientists wondering: What effect will it have on developing brains?

DOWLING: The focus when we first started talking about doing the study was tobacco, marijuana, all drugs.

That’s Gaya Dowling in a 60 Minutes interview.

DOWLING: The screentime component really came into play because we were wondering what is the impact? I mean, clearly kids spend so much time on screens.

Dowling is directing this long-term study for the National Institutes of Health. Her research team will follow almost 12,000 children ages 9 and 10 until they become young adults.

And what they’ve found is already disturbing the researchers. Children who spend more than two hours a day on their phones have lower scores on language and thinking tests. More troubling? The average American child spends more than six hours a day in front of a screen.

In those children, scientists have also found a premature thinning of the cortex—the outermost layer of the brain. It’s responsible for the development of impulse and emotion control.

DOWLING: That’s typically thought to be a maturational process, so what we would expect to see later is happening a little bit earlier.

But Dowling warns that correlation does not mean causation. So these findings aren’t necessarily bad.

DOWLING: It won’t be until we follow them over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we’re seeing in this single snapshot.

Author Kathy Koch is a psychologist who frequently speaks on family issues at churches and Christian schools. She says that while the full effect may not be known for many years, she is already seeing behavioral changes in children.

And she says more important than the impact of technology on developing brains is the impact it’s having on developing hearts.  

KOCH: Today’s young children, kids, young adults, 25 and under are being raised by technology, not by parents, but by technology. Sadly, that’s a true statement in a lot of family dynamics and it is changing the way their brain works, which is… why they think they deserve to be happy all the time. It’s why they think everything should be fast and about them because technology has taught them that, and they’re going to have a very hard time with things like patience and other-centeredness and humility.

And Koch says it’s already become an addiction for many children.

KOCH: Some research says it’s the same addiction as a heroin addiction. It’s the same adrenaline drop in the brain and very hard to control.

And Koch argues parents are primarily responsible for their children’s dependency on the technology that is hampering their development.

KOCH: Why have we allowed this? One of the reasons we’ve allowed it is that parents are addicted, and parents realize that there’s a hypocrisy in saying you can’t have that when the parent wants more and more of their own.

So what can be done about it? Koch says the fight against technology is a fight that requires self-control from parents as well.

KOCH: Children and teenagers and young adults tell me all the time that they very much resent it when a parent has yelled at them or tells them enough screen time, drop your phone—and they’re on their phone.

She also says phones have become a replacement for many things—but that can change.

KOCH: Another very practical idea, frankly… that we’ve done is buy our kids a dictionary. And I have an address book and, you know, an alarm clock there, they’re used to the phone being everything, and that’s not their… fault, but we can buy them the tools that would allow them to use their phone less.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents steer clear of all digital technology for children younger than 2. And Kathy Koch says parents should take that advice to heart.

KOCH: I would say you have to mature and grow up and put our children’s tomorrow’s first.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Kristen Flavin.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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