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How Screens Turn Kids into "Digital Addicts"

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When it comes to kids and technology, even the most tech-savvy parents proceed with caution, some even going as far as to enroll their children in technology-free schools. Some people on this list include Larry Page (the founder of Google), the late Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos (the man who started Amazon) and Jimmy Wales (the creator of Wikipedia).

In general, parents know that letting their children stare at screens for prolonged periods of time is not good for them. They've all dealt with the tantrums after they take the device from their children's hands. They have also noticed overall attention deficit, boredom, and apathy when their children are not looking at these screens.

Recent research has shown that smartphones, iPads, video games and other electronic devices can have a similar effect as a drug. Those same research studies show that these devices affect the frontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls execution and impulses, in the same way as cocaine does. Furthermore, staring at screens increases dopamine levels, which is why children become suddenly happy when handed an electronic device and then immediately upset when the device is taken away.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience and human behavior at UCLA, calls these devices "electronic cocaine," and researchers from China refer to them as "digital heroin."

In his book Glow Kids, addiction expert Dr. Nicholas Kardaras mentions that young kids who spend too much time on electronic devices are at risk to develop a digital addiction. He also states that this digital addiction is harder to overcome than a drug addiction. Initial readers' response was that equaling children's technology usage and drugs was an exaggeration. But Kardaras claims that more than 200 studies correlate excessive technology use with a number of disorders, addiction being only one of them. While this can affect adults, the effect on kids is worse.

In the book, Dr. Kardaras gave the example of a series of clinical experiments. In these experiments, when doctors were treating military combat victims' burn wounds, they stopped giving the patients morphine and instead gave them a video game to play called Snow World to distract them from the pain. The results showed that patients felt no pain while they threw snowballs at penguin cartoon characters jumping around to catchy music.

Kardaras interviewed Lieutenant Sam Brown, a pilot who participated in the experiments. Lt. Brown was injured in Afghanistan by an explosive device and had life-threatening third-degree burns on more than 30% of his body. Lt. Brown told Dr. Kardaras that, in the beginning, he was skeptical about the experiment, but was willing to try it. After the experiment, Lt. Brown felt less pain while playing the game than while he was under morphine.

As this study shows, the digital drug had some benefits. But, we shouldn't forget how this digital drug, stronger than a real drug like morphine, affects the brain and nervous system of a child addicted to a device with a glowing screen.

This digital drug is everywhere around us, including our children's schools. Classrooms are transforming into digital playgrounds, with Smart Boards, smartphones, educational apps, games, etc.

So, what should you do? Should you isolate your child from technology completely? That might not be the best decision - that would rob your child from the advantages that come from technology. For example, going forward, more and more jobs will require at least basic computer knowledge, and predictions say that this trend is going to grow. Not knowing how to use computers in the future might be considered as detrimental as not knowing how to read today. That being said, the answer is somewhere in the middle--let your child enjoy electronic devices, but set time limits. Also, take advantage of that screen time by combining fun with education, such as downloading educational games or apps, so your child is enjoying the device while also learning.

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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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