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Author: Heather Bragg – Education Specialist

Learning in the Digital Age: How are Screens Affecting Our Child’s School Experience?

Author: Heather Bragg – Education Specialist

Smartphones, social media and technology are getting a lot of attention in the press lately, especially in connection to anxiety and depression. Last fall’s New York Times article Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety? highlighted several alarming statistics, including the doubled increase in teens hospitalized for being suicidal over the past 10 years. More than ever, parents are seeking treatment for their teens and children in inpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization and school refusal programs.

The use of technology and its role in mental health will likely be debated for years to come, as anxiety and depression can be complex and linked to a myriad of causes.

But what about children who have yet to venture onto Snapchat or Instagram? Are they at risk for a well-being backslide too?

For those of us who parent and work with younger children, we can’t help but wonder about the effects of technology on learning and attention.

Younger children may not have as much access to personal technology as teens, but they often have tablets and access to computers, video games and other screens at home and school. Glowing screens – and the highly-stimulating images they hold – may very well be changing the way young brains are wired.

For starters, most of today’s screens are illuminated by LEDs, which have a higher percentage of blue lightwaves than any other source of light, natural or artificial. Blue light boosts attention and mood, as well as suppresses melatonin. This is great news when applied to the daytime hours. Exposure to blue light – like in LED-illuminated devices – can suppress melatonin and disrupts the natural sleeps cycle if the exposure happens later in the afternoon and evening. This is when many children play on screens…after school, after homework, before bedtime. Using screens later in the day may leave our children sleep-deprived, which in turn wreaks havoc on their ability to focus and concentrate.

In addition to the exposure to blue light, our children’s brains get amped up by playing fast-paced video games and watching action-filled tv shows. The rapid-fire scenes are entertaining – that’s their point, after all – and change at a much faster rate than ordinary, non-screened life. But ordinary life is what our brains are wired to deal with. After taking in sensory-rich scenes, regular life may seem under-stimulating to young minds.

While on screens, many children get into a state of hyper-focus when their brains are processing all the fast-paced visual information. These visuals create an artificial sense of urgency and excitement, spurring the release of feel-good chemicals in the brain, such as the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Our evolutionary biology was engineered so that these happy chemicals course through our bodies whenever we conquer and achieve. This design served us well in the past, when we were hunting wildlife for survival, but is not always a good fit for our modern lifestyle.

So here are our children, getting natural highs from on-screen triumphs and “leveling up”, all the while taking their brains on a sensory roller-coaster ride that often leaves them craving more input when in calm and ordinary surroundings.

Like the classroom.

This is particularly true of children with focus and attention difficulties.  When screen time ends, their focus pendulum swings toward boredom. After being in a state of hyper-arousal, they later become very un-focused. In the face of ordinary life, the brain senses a lack stimuli and desperately searches the landscape for something more to take in.

If there isn’t much action to take in, many children create stimulation by getting up, moving around, yelling out and behaving in ways that are not agreeable to the school environment.

This may explain why we are seeing such a sharp increase in children struggling with attention, focus, impulsivity and self-control in school. And every time we see a child in a classroom distracted and unfocused, we see a child who is not available to learn. (Not to mention the children who are constantly being reprimanded or removed from the classroom for their behavior; they are not present for learning, either.)

So what are we parents to do?

Practical routines and solutions for better learning may vary by family and require some trial-and-error from parents. Guidelines for helping our children learn and stay focused may include:

  1. Limit screen time – Some parents put time limits on devices; other households reserve screen time for weekends.
  2. Boost physical activity – Exercise improves learning on three levels: it improves alertness, encourages nerve cells to bind together and spurs the development of new nerve cells. All of this happens in addition to the health and stress-management benefits of exercise!
  3. Bring out the board games, cards and puzzles – Activities like these can give busy brains something to do while still providing structure by following the rules. Playing games can also be a fun family activity.

Raising children in today’s environment is ever-changing and hardly easy. As parents, we are often making on-the-fly adjustments to our family’s routines and activities in the face of feedback. As we wade into parenting in the digital age, we are often faced with concerns and questions, some of which have no answers…yet. Focusing on the habits and routines within our control – such as access to technology and managing screen time – can leave us more empowered and our children learning and healthy.