Technology unarguably has changed society, and continues to evolve, but how has it changed our brain function and our mental health? And more specifically, the health and mental well-being of children and their parents?
A study conducted in 2019 by San Francisco-based nonprofit Common Sense Media, focused on promoting digital well-being for children, found information that might explain the concern regarding technology. The study asked parents and teens how much time they spend on their devices and how that is affecting their sleep and their relationships with each other.
Among their key findings, both parents and teens, 62 percent of parents and 39 percent of children, keep their devices physically close to them at night and have their sleep interrupted by notifications — even though most doctors recommend not looking at screens at least two hours before bed.
First Things First is a Phoenix-based organization committed to supporting the healthy development and learning of children from birth to age 5, which also is the timeframe that the brain develops the most.
Liz Barker Alvarez, chief policy advisor at First Things First, explained that screens emit blue light that suppress production of melatonin — the chemical in the brain that causes you to be tired — and keeps us from going to sleep. Young children need even more sleep than adults, so a lack of it can cause negative health effects.
She also emphasized that sometimes parents don’t realize how much all of the screen time adds up. “Finding a balance of activities is key,” she said.
There is a tendency to focus on how screen time affects young people and their developing brains, and not as much about how it affects adults. As part of its “Screens and Sleep” study, Common Sense found there are many households where everyone feels they are addicted to their devices and distracted by them.
Common Sense set out to study children and parents because they correlate to each other. If mom and dad are always on their phones at dinner, their children will believe it’s acceptable because they imitate their parents.
“Media use takes place within a family context. It does not occur in a vacuum,” said Michael Robb, director of research at Common Sense, regarding parents’ actions that are picked up by children.
The Atlantic published an article interpreting the concept of distracted parenting. Author, Erika Christakis wrote, “Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.” Because parents are distracted by their devices, children become prone to acting out because they are yearning for their parents’ attention. Common Sense found that 52% of parents feel they are spending too much time on their devices and 39% of children wish their parent would get off their device.
Researching the way technology affects our brains is not new. There have been over 100 scientific reports studying screen habits and well-being in young people, and more than 200 studies examining whether violent video games lead to aggressive behavior, as written by Benedict Carey for the New York Times.
Carey explained that, despite all of the studies, it is hard to pinpoint what, if anything, creates changes in the brain because everyone’s development is different.
“Individual variation is the rule in brain development,” he said. “The size of specific brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, the rate at which those regions edit and consolidate their networks, and the variations in these parameters from person to person make it very difficult to interpret findings.”
In an attempt to overcome these obstacles, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, which is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the U.S., according to its website. They have 21 research sites across the country and are studying 11,878 children aged 9 and 10 through adolescence into young adulthood. Carey discussed the early results of this study and said that the findings were “a mixed bag” because many of the children’s results weren’t consistent with each other.
However, some studies have found solid results. A study published in Lancet Child and Adolescent Health found that one hour of physical activity per day, two hours or less of screen time per day, and sleeping 9-11 hours per night for children age 8 to 11 lead to higher mental test scores than children who didn’t meet these criteria.
But how does this data and research transfer into the real world? Jodi Windle, a local mom of a 5-year-old and 3-year-old, allows her children to use screens for about two hours per day because the effect has been mostly positive.
“I monitor them closely… but my children have learned a lot by watching their iPads,” she said, adding that she uses devices when she feels that her children need to have some downtime, though, they will always choose being outside, doing a project, or just playing over screen time.
Many argue that technology is only the new era of television, but others disagree, saying that too much screen time is rotting children’s brains. Only time will tell the true effects that it will have on the next generation of adults.