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Is Digital the Solution? Accessibility, Learning, Addiction, and Crime

I have bad news. I’m addicted to screens. And you might be too. Maybe you don’t know it, and perhaps you’re even denying my accusation, but try to answer the following before you attempt to defend yourself:

  • Do you take your phone to bed and check something before sleeping?

  • Do you take your phone to the bathroom?

  • Do you feel an uncontrollable urge to check your phone even without notifications?

  • Do you use your phone in any way while driving?

  • Do you binge-watch your favorite series without much difficulty?

  • Do you feel a certain “anxiety” when you’re without your phone?

  • Do you send texts or record audio messages while walking?

These and many other questions on the topic can help you identify signs of addiction. If you’re still hesitant to say you’re addicted, here’s a definition to help clarify things:

Addiction is an inability to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior even though it may cause psychological or physical harm. Medical News Today

According to UNICEF, screen addiction:

Screen addiction can happen when screen use is so compulsive it impairs daily functioning. This could be affecting your productivity, relationships, health or wellbeing. UNICEF

So, convinced now? I suppose you are an adult and think that if you really want to break this vicious cycle, you can. Maybe you’re telling yourself that you need your phone for work and that social media is essential for your job. I would have to agree because deep down, I believe the same thing – or at least I often tell myself that to justify my lack of control with screens. The big problem is how this is affecting those people who already don’t have control over their actions and act much more impulsively than us. I’m talking about children and teenagers.

But before discussing the impacts on this age group, let’s consider some pillars of how excessive screen use impacts our brains. We can divide this topic into PILLAR 1 – The Mechanics of Addiction; PILLAR 2 – Direct Impacts; and PILLAR 3 – Indirect Impacts. First, we need to understand how addiction affects brain structure and functions, then we need to know how this directly impacts the lives of children and teenagers, and finally, we must reflect on the indirect consequences it causes.


PILLAR 1 – THE MECHANICS OF ADDICTION

Brain’s Reward System

The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is a region of the brain that produces the neurotransmitter called dopamine, which is essential for our feeling of reward. The VTA sends dopamine signals to other brain regions, including the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is activated by dopamine from the VTA and is responsible for that feeling of reward and the pleasure that comes with it. When something makes us feel good, like eating something delicious or receiving compliments, the nucleus accumbens is in action.


The prefrontal cortex is the brain region involved in planning and decision-making (check out the famous executive functions). It receives input from the VTA and the nucleus accumbens and helps decide whether an action is rewarding enough to be repeated in the future. For example, if you eat a delicious cake and it activates your nucleus accumbens, your prefrontal cortex may decide that eating cake is a rewarding action worth doing again in the future. Or perhaps the rewarding action is getting a social media notification or watching your favorite series on Netflix.


When we are addicted, there is intense activation of the brain’s reward system. The problem has to do with how much and when we use substances or engage in behaviors that lead to the excessive release of dopamine. Over time, this intense activation of the reward system causes our brain to lose sensitivity and require a higher dose to feel the same pleasant rewarding sensation. Therefore, when we are addicted, we need our frequent “dose” of the “drug” that hooked us. This means that the structure and function of the reward system have changed. Now, the addicted person needs to go through a long process of “detoxification” to return to normal life, and there is always a risk of relapse.


PILLAR 2 – DIRECT IMPACTS


According to American psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, author of the book “Reset Your Child’s Brain,” one of the most significant impacts of excessive screen use by children is related to sleep disruption and the consequent desynchronization of the body’s “biological clock.” The light from electronic devices mimics daylight, which can suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that signals the body to sleep. Just a few minutes of screen stimulation can delay the release of melatonin by several hours and disrupt the body’s natural clock.


Nighttime light can have negative consequences for mental health. Exposure to electronic device light during the night has been linked to depression and even the risk of suicide in numerous studies. Animal studies have also shown that exposure to screen light before or during sleep can cause depression, even when the animal is not looking at the screen (check out the two books mentioned in this article to read more about it).


Furthermore, screen use can induce stress responses, which can increase irritability and affect mood regulation. Both acute (fight or flight) and chronic stress can lead to changes in brain chemistry and hormones, resulting in a vicious cycle of cortisol release and depression. Perhaps the most evident direct problem reported by teachers and parents is related to attention. Screen use is often associated with the concept of “multitasking.” This concept is a neuromyth, meaning it is false information about how the brain learns. Multitasking overloads the sensory system, fragments attention, and depletes mental reserves. Lack of focus, in addition to significant learning deficits, can lead to explosive and aggressive behaviors.


PILLAR 3 – INDIRECT IMPACTS


Despite the provocative title, Michel Desmurget’s book “Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children” is definitely worth reading (especially educators and families). It explores the negative impacts of excessive technology use by children and young people and even argues that the “digital generation” has, for the first time, a lower IQ than their parents in several countries. According to Desmurget, the blame lies not only in screen time but also in the type of content consumed, which is generally recreational and intellectually unstimulating, such as watching television, playing video games, and spending hours on social media.


The book describes both the direct and indirect impacts very well. It’s worth mentioning here that time spent on screens with social media and games takes away from children and adolescents the time they could be using for fundamental activities such as physical activity, social interaction with family members, and boredom. Yes, boredom! Always staying in focused mode, going from one notification to the next, or endlessly scrolling prevents people from experiencing boredom, which, despite being dull, helps with creativity, engagement in activities people wouldn’t normally do, and social relationships.


Children who are addicted to screens don’t play outside as much, aren’t exposed to sunlight, which impacts vitamin D production, don’t develop their emotional intelligence well, and miss out on a range of skills and competencies essential for a functional and fulfilling life. Some studies even show the negative effects of social media, especially Instagram, on the self-esteem and mental health of teenage girls. The platform, which focuses on highly stylized images and a culture of perfection, can lead teenage girls to compare their bodies and lives with the posts of others, leading to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.


The problem


Let me get something straight. You might be thinking that I don't want remote teaching to happen anymore or that I'm an advocate for completely banning screens at schools. That's not true. I'm not against remote teaching at all. I understand how valuable it is as it gives people from all over the world access to and more control over relevant learning experiences. I teach most of my courses online nowadays. As for banning cell phones and tablets, I think that depends on the age and, to be fair, limiting, restricting, and overseeing might be good enough. However, I must remind you that as most of us had already suspected, online classes are not the perfect substitute for in-person interactions.


The study Zoom Conversations vs In-Person: Brain Activity Tells a Different Tale conducted by Yale neuroscientist Joy Hirsch, utilized advanced neuroimaging techniques to compare neural activity during face-to-face conversations and Zoom interactions. The findings revealed a notable difference in neural signals between the two settings. During online exchanges, researchers observed suppressed neural signals, highlighting reduced engagement of social neural circuits. In contrast, in-person discussions exhibited heightened brain activity, including increased neural responses related to gaze time, pupil dilation, and enhanced face processing ability. These findings emphasized the richness of live social interactions and suggested that current digital representations of faces, such as those on Zoom, do not effectively activate the brain's social neural pathways. The study underscores the limitations of online platforms in fully engaging our social cognition, showcasing the intricate choreography of neural activity that governs social interactions in person. According to a study titled The Impact of Mobile Devices on Working Memory conducted by Kyle Huff, it was found that mobile devices demand a higher working memory capacity compared to traditional computers. This heightened cognitive load can lead to decreased scores in cognitive assessments when performed on mobile devices.


This whole debate concerns me a lot more when:


-we are dealing with kids and teens

-we offer 100% asynchronous learning experiences


I wrote about what I called the human factor a while ago for Modern English Teacher raising those concerns. Kids and teens are still developing self-regulation strategies and expecting them to be self-efficacious about their learning in online environments is not realistic.


How can we offer meaningful online learning experiences to everyone, particularly that age group? We have options that might be too exclusive. Virtual Reality and immersive learning environments, hybrid courses, and so on.


Being together, physically in the same room is one of those things we can't neglect as a powerful way to teach more effectively.


The real danger


Here comes the truth we might be neglecting. Unlimited access to unlimited information and digital tools in the hands of kids and teens, who can self-regulate well, can be a dangerous combination. I have seen in less than 24 hours that students from a Brazilian elite school and students from an American school committed the same crime. They used artificial intelligence (AI) to remove the clothes of their classmates from photos posted on social media. They downloaded an app, altered the images, and shared the nudes in various groups.


There are other dangers. Online predators (pedophiles), challenges that get children to physically harm others or themselves (leading to suicide sometimes), phishing and scams, and the list goes on.


Who's to blame? Adults. Families trust schools to prevent things like that. On the other hand, schools demand from parents that they educate their kids better. Instead of blaming one another, they must work as partners to find solutions. We can also blame the lax regulation of internet use when it comes to children and teenagers. They are vulnerable. They can't make sound decisions. They act impulsively and many times naively.


What can we do?


The only solution is to work as partners to limit/restrict/oversee kids' and teens’ activities online. Let’s remember that with the pandemic, children’s exposure to screens increased even more, amplifying the potential harm. Many technology gurus were enthusiastic about the changes the pandemic would bring to education; however, more and more studies are showing that the effects were much more negative than anticipated. Educators worldwide are talking about learning loss, increased aggressiveness and impulsivity, virtual/digital crimes, and significant dissatisfaction among families, students, and educators.


Both Victoria Dunckley and Michel Desmurget, among other authors, emphasize the importance of acting quickly to limit screen time and encourage more enriching activities like reading and music, outdoor time, socialization, and leisure to ensure proper cognitive development and prevent future complications for children and youth.


This is the stark truth. Many see digital technology as a panacea, but we must remember that children cannot self-regulate properly because their brains are still developing. Until they can control their impulses, adults must act as their frontal lobe. And this responsibility does not fall solely on schools. Parents spend more time with children and teenagers, especially at night, and they should set screen usage limits.


If we (thinking adults) struggle to break this addiction, buy fake news, and even follow hate groups, imagine children. Many who are socially isolated, neglected at home, and bullied at school or cyberbullied on social media become more vulnerable to groups that incite violence. All they want is acceptance, and if someone offers it, even with the intent to harm someone else, as we’ve seen in recent news, they may not have the capacity to say no.


But there is hope. Like I said, let’s not demonize digital technology. It allows many things to be possible and can enhance children’s learning. Using screens for reading, playing memory games, or interacting with players from other countries, along with satisfying curiosity with stimulating and rich content, is always a good idea. So, here are some tips:

  • Set time limits.

  • Establish screen-free times.

  • Encourage other activities without screens.

  • Monitor the content children follow.

  • Promote social interaction.

Parents do need to intervene and help their children have a less harmful and negative experience with screens and social media. Only then will children and teenagers grow up physically and psychologically healthier.

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