Working as a Mindcoach with teenagers and young people, I am shocked at phone usage and consumption of hours and hours staring at various screens. I find technology is becoming such an extension of us, that it is hardwired to our nervous system, we are constantly aware of where our phones are and if it goes off, lose concentration until it is checked. It is like an addiction and the thought of not having their phone panics many people, young and old! Never mind what Anne and Rachel would say its doing to our posture….
I see teenagers who say they are feeling anxious…and when 7 hours of their past day has been spent staring at photoshopped images, and interacting with people through empty words on a screen I would say…little wonder. For some young people, they don’t actually know how they ‘feel’ they are so disconnected from their body that everything has become a representation on a screen, in words or in pictures. Everything is measured through it. I am 27 and I am so grateful that I missed the social media explosion in school, I think I would have failed my A-levels if there had been so much distraction.
There is so much pressure on young people we have to do what we can to help them realize there is more to their life than being a slave to their phone and other technology. They were made for more! But it really is little wonder that so many are feeling cut off, hurt, anxious, disconnected or down.
Research shows our growing use of digital devices can affect sleep quality, obesity risk, aggressive behavior and cause what is termed “digital dementia”. The term originated in South Korea nearly a decade ago after doctors began seeing young patients with brain-function issues that are more commonly found in aging people or those with conditions such as stroke, traumatic brain injury, or tumors.
‘Multitasking’ is an illusion and can create anxiety
‘Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us less efficient.
Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.’ (from the Organised Mind, Daniel Levitin).
What can we do?
For young people I feel the most important things you can do is encourage them to switch off their phone, or leave it behind and actually connect with the world around them. Build up their confidence to do other things, to be part of the amazing world they live in! In my experience over use of technology is one of the main issues that are causing huge emotional issues in our young people. If you limit it or refuse to buy them expensive smartphones, trust me they will thank you later in life. It also takes the pressure off them to be ‘constantly available’ to their friends if for example their phone gets switched off for a few hours every day.
While ‘digital dementia’ can affect anyone, young people might be at higher risk for overuse of devices because the brain is still developing. Spitzer feels so strongly about the issue that he recommends children avoid media consumption until they are 15 to 18 years old.
Technology use is unavoidable, since it’s increasingly employed in classrooms and it is of course part of our future- but it’s never too early to teach the next generation how to use it wisely.
Here are some suggestions from the American Academy of Pediatrics and a few from myself…
• Use print media rather than tablets or smartphones for reading to give your child a break from looking at screens. Studies have shown that reading print materials also boosts reading comprehension.
• Practice memorizing things like phone numbers and passwords instead of simply letting technology track them.
• Take facebook or whatsapp push messages off your phone: you can still check it but have to open it up, makes it just that little bit less ‘easy’
• Analog hours: ‘go analog’ for at least one hour every evening where you turn off all screens
• Use puzzles and games, such as chess and Scrabble, that promote real-time problem-solving rather than games that let the computer do the thinking.
• Do not over stimulate your brain just before bed: reading the news, or scrolling facebook on your bright phone screen is not the same as reading a few pages of a book
• Set screen-time limits for adults and children
• Create screen-free zones where no digital technology is allowed — like the dinner table and your child’s bedroom.
• Limit media multitasking — using two or more types of media simultaneously such as listening to a CD while doing homework.
• Turn off the television if no one is watching it since background television can disrupt the quantity and quality of personal interaction and has an ‘energy cost’ within the brain.
• Develop creativity by offering your child musical instruments, art supplies, origami, or physical toys that spark their imagination.
• Encourage your child to develop hobbies that aren’t related to digital media — such as being outside watching nature, playing with pets, skateboarding, acting, dancing, writing, and jewelry making.
Aisling specialises in working with young people experiencing social anxiety or confidence issues.
Get in touch if you know someone who needs some extra Mindcoaching to help break a technology habit or with Rachel for anyone who has a sore neck or back from constantly leaning forward.
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