This is Your Kid’s Brain on Tech

Truth: Raising kids today is infinitely harder than in years past. And even though our parents want to give us tips on how to parent, they really have no idea what it’s like with this level of tech immersion. In fact, our kids (known as gen Alpha) will be the first generation to only know a world dominated by digital.

The result: Tech now leaves a completely different footprint on the developing kids’ brain, making focus, learning, and self-regulation harder to achieve.

Then and Now

We Millennials grew up with multiple analog and digital devices: family computers, landlines, tv, video games, etc. All were separate tools and you had to move from one location to another to use each one, stopping use of one item for another. They also weren’t as fast or efficient (like that internet dial up connection or restarting a video game because it had a loading error).

These small inconveniences provided the tiniest brain break between each use. The space between each activity would allow our brains to momentarily process and store previous information before engaging with another device. Even the old school way of memorizing phone numbers and addresses gave us some sort of cognitive function.

Now, most everything is on one handheld device. Although a smartphone/tablet has made life more convenient, it has eliminated all physical boundaries that limited our use of previous media. If we want to browse the internet, chat with friends, play a game, take a selfie, we can literally do it all at the same time. As adults, we understand how to use this tool both for enjoyment and productivity, and have (enough) awareness to know when we are going down the rabbit hole. But not our kids…. Check out Ready Player One or WALL-E.

Deep Impact

As our screen-based world demands more from our visual system, there has been a rise in children who are more dysregulated, inattentive, and with behavioral issues due to limited engagement of their other sensory systems and visual overstimulation. Additionally, children can’t effectively self-monitor because their prefrontal cortex is still developing. Their wiring defaults to instant and novel stimulation. Why use more energy moving about when I can just sit here and get all the cognitive stimuli I need in one place?

Excessive screen use can also result in:

  • Postural issues as our neck and back muscles will fixate to help stabilize our eyes. Over time, the pain and fatigue of these muscles may take center stage, resulting in limited attention to presented tasks.
  • Visual issues like digital eye strain (or computer vision syndrome), which is group of eye- and vision-related problems due to prolonged use of screens. This is the fastest growing health concern in the workplace also impacting children.

Learning also takes a hit with more screen use. Children are currently consuming 7+ hours of screen time a day. The more they media multi-task, their executive functioning decreases (working memory, cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control).

So how do we reconcile those facts with these facts:

  • 97% of classrooms in the US have at least one computer
  • 41% of parents report their kids spending 3 or more hours a day using digital devices
  • 66% of kids have their own smartphone or tablet

A recent study found that 54% of US teens (the last wave of Gen Z) are recognizing that they spend too much time on their phones with 60% of them considering it a “major problem”. Even though they reported lower levels of risky behavior, they also reported higher levels of depression and loneliness. Obviously, this is scary when we think about how our little kids are going to develop.

What Can We Do?

Find the balance. Remember that there are little to no physical barriers stopping kids from indulging in too much media. So that leaves it up to parents to establish those limits as well as help them build healthy tech habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) developed the AAP Family Media Plan to help create individualized strategies for each family member and set media priorities and parameters. For more tips and tools about digital parenting, you can check out Digital Parenting | AT&T ScreenReady® .

Get moving. We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again. Movement is important. It promotes increased heart rate and blood flow, regulating arousal level and attention to tasks. Cardio activities raise the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which maintains and promotes neural growth. More growth means stronger connections in the brain. Cognitive-engaging physical activities (like organized sports) have a strong effect on executive functions regarding adaptability and goal-oriented behavior. The CDC recommends that children 3 to 5 years of age should be physically active throughout the day, especially with play. For kids 6 and up, they should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. It’ll also help you get that #1000HoursOutside goal.

One Thing at a Time. When your kid is doing a project, arts and crafts, or having a meal, turn off other devices (including the tv) and put away your own. A recent study found that kids did better at testing when their phone was outside the room, meaning that the closer we are to our phones, the less attentive we are to tasks at hand. This also helps the brain reinforce the habit of focusing on one task until completion and allowing for work flow.

Breathe and stretch. These activities can reduce stress and cortisol levels that are notorious for cell death in the limbic system, affecting memory and the ability to learn. Stretching also lessens potential back and neck pain from poor posture and muscle tensing from screen use. Mindfulness, self-regulation, blood flow: all good things.

Rest those eyes. Your child’s eyes need a moment of respite for all the information they are taking in. Some ways to give them some relief include:

  • Vision breaks – Have your child cover their eyes by putting their head down (like when playing Heads Up, 7 Up) or cupping them with their hands. The darkness allows the eyes to dilate, relaxing their eye muscles.
  • 20-20-20 rule – Every 20 minutes, have your child take a 20 second break to look at something 20 feet away. This helps reduce eye convergence (when both eyes simultaneously turn inward to focus on an object) used during screen time.
  • Blink a lot to moisten the eyes which can become dry when staring at a screen.
  • Clean the screen to reduce glare.
  • Change the background color to dark mode to lower light emissions.
  • Use blue light filters to reduce eye strain.

Now you know enough info to make sure that your kid’s brain can still be tech-forward without becoming dependent on constant media stimulation. So, when you’re running errands and have to resort to giving your kid your phone to get something done, it’s okay. But you are the unofficial tech police, so keep tabs.

Look for the red flags in your kid’s behavior or physical condition to make sure they are consuming content in a reasonable manner.

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Schmalle, A. (2021, April 14). Distracted and Disorganized Kids in a Digital Generation: Techniques to Influence Neuroplasticity, Manage Screen Time and Implement Sensory Smart Movement. Retrieved from Seminar.

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