Technology Impacts the Developing Brain: How to Strike a Healthy Balance
Our world is technology driven. My grandchildren are surrounded by an array of technology that didn’t even exist when their parents were growing up. What my children did for play bears no resemblance to what children do today. Two words could sum up my children’s play: imagination and physicality.
We can observe that when a child is immersed in a video or game or app of some kind, the technology is driving the experience. The child is an observer who follows along. In absence of technology, children are more imaginative. They think of things to do. They make things, move, climb, run, talk, argue, laugh, interact with others.
My pre-technology son and daughter were both creative in their play. My daughter made intricate crafts using papers she colored and cut into shapes to build 3D figures using tiny rolls of tape. She dressed up, wrote stories, played piano and sang. She began cooking at an early age. My son was also creative. He experimented (without my knowledge) on the best ways to eradicate the huge Georgia anthills on our property. The most memorable method involved soaking a giant anthill in gas and then striking a match. He was ok; he just lost his eyebrows. He was a hands-on creative soul then and still is today.
Technology with all its many facets is here to stay. And we all take advantage of it! We use apps to get a ride, order lunch, buy everything from batteries to garden shovels, track exercise, get the latest news, find recipes, play mindless games, and watch streaming movies. And this is scratching the surface! The technology explosion has changed our lives forever.
One concern I share with many others who have a passion for child development is the impact of a steady diet of technology on healthy brain development. There is a plethora of wonderful research out there that details the impact of a steady diet of technology on the developing brain. I want to hit some highlights in this article and before I do, I want to clarify that my hope is not to put all our children into a technology-free bubble. My hope is rather to bring awareness of technology’s impact, and to encourage the process of creating a balance of activities that will yield a well-developed brain.
How too much technology impacts the developing brain
The young brain is rapidly developing and is quite plastic. What this means is that a child’s experiences literally shape the brain. What gets used frequently is strengthened. The neural circuitry that is unused or rarely used, is pruned off. Children can be influenced greatly for life simply based on the types of activities in which they engage when they are young. This is the “nurture” part of the old “nature vs. nurture” question. Children are born with a particular bent, but much may be added by thoughtful planning and preparation.
Here's a quote by Dr. Hallowell and Ratey from Driven to Distraction about technology changing the wiring in a child’s brain:
“If you want the short course on why children think differently today, sit down with your child and spend a few minutes watching Sesame Street or MTV. See how you respond to the dizzyingly rapid-fire images on … commercials. Watch how your child sits, transfixed, processing an almost impossible amount of visual information. If that weren’t enough, technology has brought us even more ADD-like options for TV viewing: picture-within-a-picture and split-frame features, and the omnipresent remote control. … Remote control switch in hand, we switch from station to station taking in dozens of programs at once, catching a line here, an image there, getting the gist of the show in a millisecond, getting bored with it in a full second, blipping on to the next show, the next bit of stimulation, the next quick pick." This visual chaos can’t help but change the way we think.
What a technology imbalance looks like
Here's my own perspective as a parent, grandmother, and former teacher on how a technology imbalance impacts children. Children who spend a lot of time with technology, unbalanced by activities that exercise other parts of their brains, may display these traits to varying degrees:
- Reduced impulse towards imaginative play
- Reluctance to choose any kind of play over technology
- Default to technology to relax
- Finding regular schoolwork tedious, boring, and pointless
- Difficulty listening to a teacher teach a lesson
- Finding that reading requires too much effort
- Lack physical energy to play outside
- Struggle to engage in any activity apart from technology, including stimulating conversation
Basically, children who are out of balance with their technology use seem to fight against any other type of activity. They become more passive and reactive and take little initiative. The long-term effects of this kind of wiring change in the brain is that children will be less skilled at problem-solving, creating solutions, imagining steps to resolve problems, will be less capable of making long term plans.
It may not seem like a big deal when children are young, but as children who have under-exercised the creative, imaginative, problem-solving portions of their brains grow into young adults, the impact of technology over-use will become apparent. There will be a basic lack of brain development in ways that will help them plan, problem solve, and order their lives in a proactive way.
How to create a healthy balance of activities
In Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World, Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons state:
“We need to lay the foundations for learning in early childhood by stimulating children’s brains with a variety of activities that exercise the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic parts of the brain. This isn’t to say we should be enrolling babies in preschool prep courses, but rather that we should read to our children, talk in ‘parentese’ to them, and sing nursery rhymes.” (p. 36).
Fortunately, we have the ability to create a good balance for our children. There must be a good amount of time spent playing outside, moving in space, balancing, spinning, running. There must be ample conversation with adults about things that matter. Children should participate in chores that keep the home running for everyone.
They will benefit from learning to solve problems rather than having problems solved for them. For instance, if a child makes a poor choice and “gets into trouble” it is helpful to them if you ask how they can solve the problem and make reparations as needed. When choosing a pair of shoes or even a gadget for the house, involve them in the process of making a decision that will lead to a wise purchase. All this is good basic life skills training.
What children do repeatedly becomes hardwired into their brains. It is so worth our investment in their future!
Technology doesn’t have to become the bad guy for children! However, there should be clear, healthy limits placed on its use, and a purposeful inclusion of healthy activities that are stimulating to the brain.