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Classic Articles from the Vault #4

New 'Tech' Addiction

By Suvi Mahonen

My three-year-old daughter’s face dapples in shifting patterns of light from the mini iPad held in her hands. As she lies on the couch, with her feet resting on my knees, I watch the small twin screens reflected in her lenses, her bright blue irises flaring with each change of scene.

Since birth, her brain has more than tripled in volume as it constantly builds the new neural circuits needed to process all the new stimuli she is bombarded with. In the first few years of her life, her brain has formed approximately one million new neural connections every second.

I grew up in a small Victorian country town in the late 70s and early 80s, and until I started school at the age of five I was at home with my mother. Our black and white television was rarely watched; photos took a week to develop; letters were delivered to the mailbox. Upon starting Prep, I couldn’t count beyond 10 or even spell my own first name.

In comparison, my three-and-a-half year-old daughter knows all the letters of the alphabet thanks to the ABC Kids app. She not only takes photographs on her digital camera but also turns them into simple slide shows. She sends texts (garbled, to be fair) to her cousin Jemma and takes videos on her iPad.

So, is she smarter than I was at her age? The simple answer is Yes.  That’s according to the University of Otago Emeritus Professor James Flynn, a political scientist, who became famous for his landmark discovery that from the 1930s onwards there have been substantial gains in IQ scores in many parts of the world.

“The brain is like a muscle and there is no doubt that it will respond to stimulation,” says Prof Flynn from Dunedin, New Zealand.

As early as 2008, researchers were discovering the beneficial effects of computer use on the brain. In a ground-breaking study, scientists at the University of California found that internet use appears to boost brain function. 

 

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they found that internet searching was associated with a more than two-fold increase in the activation of brain regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities when compared with the activation shown during a text reading only task.

The brain’s response to video game stimulation has also shown promise. A Journal of Molecular Psychiatry paper suggests that video game exposure induces structural brain plasticity and improves our performance on attention demanding and perceptual tasks.” But it’s debatable whether these brain expansion effects lead to an improvement in complex life skills, such as problem solving.

“People think that any stimulation of the brain necessarily pays big dividends,” says Prof Flynn. “But it’s not clear if there’s a transfer to more socially significant cognitive skills.”

In his soon-to-be published research paper discussing how visual entertainment may actually distract people from important matters such as understanding international politics or processing social criticism, Prof Flynn argues that cognitive progress as measured by IQ tests does not necessarily equate to wisdom.

“Many video programs are designed to deliver a thrill a minute,” he says. “Yes, a three-year-old child’s brain may be more developed today than it was at the same age 30 years ago. But if their attention span for being emotionally stimulated is reduced to one minute, then their mind is programmed to a rhythm that renders complex cognition alien to them.”

Prof Flynn believes the concentration and focus required to read is losing the battle against the visual immediacy provided by the internet, with potentially serious long-term repercussions. “Studies are beginning to appear that seem to show that the less you read, the less value you set on empathising with other people.”

Research scientist at Harvard University’s Centre on Media and Child Health, Dr David Bickham has spent more than 20 years exploring how media, as an environmental factor, can influence children’s physical, mental and social development.

“It’s important to differentiate between general media use – just exposure to devices like tablets – with programs that are specifically designed for education,” he says. “The evidence shows pretty convincingly that it’s not so much the exposure to a device that makes the difference but it’s what you do with it and the content you’re exposed to.

“With television and touch screen technology, we’re finding that if you create content that’s designed to maximise the specific developmental stages and abilities of children, then you can really effectively teach content. So it’s a good way to get children exposed to letters and numbers when they’re at a young age.”

I am uncomfortably aware that my daughter exceeds almost every health organisations’ recommended maximum daily screen times for children. I admitted this to Dr Bickham but he was reassuring. Even with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent reduction of recommended maximum screen time for children under the age of five to just one hour a day, Dr Bickham, as both a researcher and parent, believes restrictions like these have become a moot point.

“In a world where screen use and technology is so pervasive, time of use starts to be more difficult to measure and less important to make guidelines on,” he says. “The more pertinent question to ask ourselves is what’s most important developmentally for the kid, and is the kid getting that? If they are I don’t think some screen time is going to hurt.”

“(However) I have not seen anything that would convince me that devices are giving a child something which is stimulating them in a way beyond an activity like reading with their parent,” Dr Bickham adds. “The parent-child exchange that goes on with shared activities cannot be replicated artificially with a device.”

The debate notwithstanding around the potential benefits or negatives of screen time on the developing brain, computers, tablets and smartphones are here to stay. The Internet Live Stats site states there are currently more than 3.6 billion people with an internet connection, and the Statista company estimates there are 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world today. 

Device detection organisation DeviceAtlas reports that 87 per cent of smartphone users say they “always have their phone at their side, day and night”. Finder.com states that nearly one in four Australians check their phones within 10 minutes of waking up and 13 per cent within one minute.

Founder and CEO of online business ParkingMadeEasy.com.au Daniel Battaglia is a self-confessed “device addict” who epitomises today’s internet savvy population. As a millennial, Sydney-based Battaglia, 34, believes modern technology has definitely made him smarter.

“Having a connected device provides instant access to so much human knowledge that was never easily accessible before,” he says. “It gives me the freedom to connect with people, learn new things, keep up-to-date with news and grow my business.”

Digital marketing professional Liz Jammal, 30, is another millennial who constantly relies on technology to stay up-to-date with trends, research and developments in her industry. Despite being aware of recommendations to regularly “switch off”, she has no intention of reducing her screen time. “Even when I’m not working, I’m on my phone reading business blogs and articles for personal development. I don’t see it as an issue,” she says.

Not everyone is so effusive. Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president, Professor Malcolm Hopwood says while there is no doubt that devices have been a wonderful aid to society, there exists a subset of people who have become overdependent on them.

“We are seeing concerns where devices can blur the boundaries between people’s work life and their personal life,” he says. “It’s really important that people get sufficient time away from work. Personal devices can make that difficult.”

So did this conflicting advice mean I was going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius? Or a smartphone-addled addict? Or would such an artificial distinction soon not exist anymore? These thoughts worry me as I stand up and touch my daughter gently on the cheek.     

“It’s bedtime,” I say. Tears and tantrums follow. As they do virtually every night. Even when I promise to read her We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. It’s time for Plan B.  

As my daughter wails, I head to the wire rack that we keep by the elevator doorway. My daughter’s tears abruptly stop when she sees the envelope in my hand. It’s plastered with animal stickers and her name and address are written on the front in big pink glitter letters.

I give her the envelope and watch as her fingernails frantically pry open the flap. She squeals in delight when she tugs out the card. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a chicken complete with yellow feathers and big black googly eyes.

“Grandma made it,” I say.

My daughter grins and shakes the hand-crafted card so that the chicken’s pupils rattle in the whites of its eyes. She giggles and I smile. Happy, that at least for now, there are still some things that screen time, no matter how smart the device, just can’t beat.

You can listen to the first three episodes our new family counseling podcast series of Figuring out Families!

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