Our world is becoming increasingly digital.  Technology is integrated into all aspects of our lives and has transformed how we engage in most of our activities – work, play, communication, entertainment, shopping, recording, and creating of all kinds.  Scientists can track that video games and interactive multimedia experiences induce, engage, and influence the mind.  Affecting the mind alters our physiological state, which also alters our thinking and perception.  How is our daily, hourly use of digital technology affecting us?

First, it’s inundating us.  Below are facts from an article by Susan Karlin.

  • Every two days, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization to 2003.
  • The amount of information that an average person is exposed to in a day is the same as a person from the 15th century was exposed to in his lifetime.
  • The amount of information generated during the first day of a baby’s life today is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress.
  • At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average (using Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours). That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego.

It’s too much to process.  Technology makes so many tasks so much faster that many people report that they do more and more and more … faster… until they feel either, addicted and disconnected from real life, or exhausted and overwhelmed, unable to keep up.

Second, it’s distracting us.

Technology seems to breed multi-tasking, which it turns out, is more stressful on the brain and nervous system than focusing.  A study at the University of California, Irvine, found that people interrupted by e-mail reported significantly increased stress compared with those left to focus.  Multi-taskers are also more sensitive than non-multi-taskers to incoming information.  Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford writes, “We’ve got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can’t ignore it.”

Technology, with its lure of constant connection to new information and events, seems to be intensifying the conflict between our lower, survival brain that processes sight and sound and our higher, big picture, planning brain that focuses and sets priorities.  In the past, the lower-brain functions alerted us to danger, like a nearby lion, and thus, rightly overrode the immediate goal of building a hut.  In the modern world, however, where survival is not an issue, the chime of incoming e-mail can lure most of us away from our focus on the present – be it writing a business plan or playing catch with the kids. The constant distraction of digital stimulation, though stressful for adults, can cause attention problems for children whose brains are still developing and need to strengthen executive function by practicing being thoughtful, setting priorities and resisting impulses.

Third, it’s taking away from personal relationships, diminishing our connection and empathy.

Dr. Gary Small, neurophysiologist, researcher and author of iBrain: Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind reports that our use of computers has and is causing rapid and profound changes in our brain neurochemistry.  MRIs of brain activity of people using technology show that initial use of interactive digital technology lights up the brain, however, when that activity becomes prolonged or rote, there is less and less frontal cortex activity and greater use of other areas of the brain associated with impulsivity and lack of empathy.  Remember, the frontal cortex is the control tower of the brain that sees the big picture, delays gratification, reasons abstractly, and plans ahead.

Time with technology, means time not with others – your friends, family, loved ones.  And we all know how that feels – when your husband, wife, friend brings the phone to the table or leaves the TV on when you’re talking.  Yet, the #1 factor in health and well-being is relationship.  Statistics show that when you feel connected and give to others, you are happier and healthier.  Children need many hours a day of face time, support, and mirroring, as well as active rough and tumble play to achieve not only motor and sensory milestones, but also socialization skills.  Ideally, children are interacting with caring adults a majority of their day and with technology only a small portion.  So, while technology is not going away and has many positive uses in our homes, workplaces, and educational systems, it needs to be balanced with activities that nurture physical contact, connection and sensory exploration and creativity.

Fourth, it’s teaching our children – what?

The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that parents permit their kids only one to two hours of “screen time” per day—a limit that includes television, movies, video games, and Internet. Despite that advice, many parents will admit that their children spend much more time “plugged in”, mostly because gaming is their favorite activity.  Video game use, unlike surfing the net or other computer uses, tends to have a more powerful and negative effect on the body’s whole nervous system. Our bodies react to the games as though they are real and can remain in a prolonged state of fright, flight or fight.  Blood pressure increases, heart rate rises, along with the subsequent release of adrenaline and cortisol, associated with chronic stress, which has been shown to decrease memory, interrupt clear thinking, and suppress the immune system. In extreme cases, where video games are played for more than 2 hours, players can actually develop “video game brain”, a syndrome that essentially turns off the frontal cortex activity, even when the game is no longer being played.

In July 2009, Douglas Gentile, a Iowa State University researcher who studies the effects of video gaming and other media on children and adults, penned a Cerebrum article entitled, “Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse”.  He writes that: “Games are natural teachers. They do many of the same things that an excellent teacher does. And that kind of teaching ability has a lot of power,” he says. “We need to treat that power with respect, to both maximize the benefits and minimize the harms. Limiting both the amount and the content is the best way we have to do that right now.”

Finding a Balance

Helping kids develop strategies for self-regulation is a necessary balance to technology. I believe that the struggle to learn, be thoughtful, manage emotions and establish positive relationships are symptoms of the emotional overdrive caused by too much technology and not enough human closeness, nature, healthy play, food and sleep.

Amy Taylor, in her article about the benefits of yoga for youth, sites a recent study out of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that showed students’ working memory and inhibitory control increased significantly after a 20-minute session of hatha yoga. Memory and ability to inhibit responses are among the “executive functions” of the human brain. These effects were not observed after 20 minutes of aerobic activity or multi-tasking.

Dr. Bruce Perry, one of the leading experts on children’s mental and emotional health, also advocates for less technology interaction and more human interaction.  He reminds us that all of our capacities are areas of our brains that have been developed through use – including our capacity to love, care, collaborate, connect, and empathize.  If we and our children spend more time with screens than with people, we get better at technology and less attuned and proficient at empathy.  He recommends that families create balance with more reflection time, music and movement, exercise and play, and service.

Dr. Charlotte Reznick, author of The Power of Your Child’s Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success, teaches children to find inner balance by using guided imagery to access their own innate wisdom.  Instead of looking for answers on the internet, she shows them how to look inward to their own imaginations to create solutions for their anxiety, fears, wounds and problems.  Like yoga and other mindfulness practices, “inner net” surfing is a powerful way to develop executive functions along with self-awareness, self-love and self-control.

Many schools have taken the research to heart and implemented mindfulness practices, “brain breaks”, or “mind-body boosters” to support students in sustaining a balanced state.  Teachers understand that an imbalanced state translates to diminished learning and distracted behavior.  They might use Brain Gym, Mindful Schools, Inner Kids, or MwM’s Movement & Mindfulness Curriculum.  Whatever they chose, by actively taking time to practice self-reflection and self-care, kids build executive function and social skills.  Schools know that a good self-regulator will pay attention to task, persist when it becomes difficult, demonstrate flexibility, and be confident that additional effort will lead to positive outcomes (Schunk, 2005).

Summary

Strong self-regulation skills are essential tools for balancing the impact of digital media and technology in our lives and in our brains.

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