I’m not going to nag about kids using devices too much. I understand giving kids a phone or tablet is sometimes the only way to give us-parents a break. Yet it’s good to be aware of the consequences electronic devices have on the brain so you would fully understand what you’re agreeing to when handing your kids a phone or giving them unlimited access to the Internet.
In the long-term perspective…
Neuroscientists have been studying the effects of electronic devices and social media on the brain for years now and what we know for sure is that engagement with phones releases dopamine. That in itself wouldn’t be bad as dopamine is a ‘feeling good’ hormone; yet this is the exact same chemical that is released when we smoke, drink, do drugs, or gamble – it’s highly addictive! With unlimited access to dopamine-producing devices, children’s brains are becoming hardwired to this form of stimulation and when significant stress will show up in their lives, they’ll be much more prone to reach for some form of chemical stimulants. Not a very good prognosis, right?
And in the short-term…
Coming back to here and now, with uncontrolled use of digital devices kids’ brains are trained to be distractive. Again, it is due to dopamine that is released anytime we get a social media notification, text from a friend, or when someone liked our post. All these activities lead to instant gratification and activate the reward system in the brain. Functional brain images of drug-addicts show significant similarities to those of device-dependent brains. These physical changes in the brain are affecting directly the regions of the brain that control not only our attention but also emotions and decision-making processes.
Stimuli caused by Instagram or Facebook notification may not be as intense as a hit of cocaine yet result are similar: dopamine is being released, we are receiving a positive feeling, and because this great feeling comes fast, easy, and almost effortlessly, we train our brain to crave for these states. In other words, the brain becomes wired to look for an immediate reward with minimal effort to achieve it. If you ever wonder why your child lacks patience and can’t focus on a task that requires time and commitment, now you know the answer.
We become good at what we practice
Allow your kid to be distracted for several hours a day and you can be sure he or she won’t be able to stay concentrated on doing homework or to simply sit and wait patiently for 10 minutes. Let them practice distraction for most of the day and they’ll become masters in distraction. Is this what you really want for your children?
I hope you understand now why parental control over the amount of time spent with the device is so important. Strict time restrictions not only help prevent dopamine addiction but also will help your child keep undivided attention for longer periods. Without a doubt, the ability to stay away from distractions is among the top skills to teach kids nowadays.
Create a distraction-free environment
Electronic distractors a not the whole story; a place where your child studies is equally crucial as the brain is far less effective in a messy environment.
Our brains evolved in times of a permanent threat. Every noise, every unexpected move in the environment (even a flower with too bright colors) were potential threats to our existence. Our brains have not changed much since prehistoric times and their main role is still to keep us safe and secure. That’s why the brain constantly scans the environment in search of potential risks. When the brain is busy with checking all the items on the desk and in its surrounding, the ability to focus is impaired. In the presence of distractions, mental alertness decreases and the efficiency of thinking weakens. This happens beyond the level of your consciousness so we may not be aware of these deficiencies yet they’re real and diminish the quality of our work.
In order to maximize the brain’s potential, the place your kid studies should be as pure and minimalist as possible (the same is true for your working space!). Create a place dedicated to studying; ask your child to clean out the desk and remove unnecessary items from the working space. This will help your children improve school performance today and equip them with a habit that supports success in adult life.
Written by: Dr Anna Kaminska