Explainers

Keep Tech from Your Tweens (and Teens)

September 6th, 2018

We tell our kids to look both ways before crossing the street and to never take candy from strangers, but then we put a device in their hand and allow them to roam virtually unfettered all over the internet — for hours on end. For exhausted, stressed out parents digital devices can be an effective way to distract children, giving mom and dad a much-needed break. But how healthy is this?

Recent studies emerging from all over the globe examine the effects that frequent internet usage has on the adolescent brain — and the results aren’t good. It turns out that 14 is as early as one should expose a child to a smartphone, and Silicon Valley parents and executives —Bill and Melinda Gates among them—are the ones leading the charge. Indeed, one such study presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in November 2017, concluded that smartphone addiction can cause chemical imbalances in the brain in children. The children who participated in the study had been diagnosed with a smartphone or internet addiction. These youngsters had significantly higher scores in impulsivity, insomnia severity, anxiety, and depression.

Another study found that generalized internet addiction among children and teens also leads to poor self-esteem, loneliness, decreased life satisfaction, social anxiety, and lack of connection. These young people whose brains are still developing are being hardwired to be less social, less interactive, and they are experiencing numerous associates psychological disorders because of it.

The truly alarming part is that often parents are placing devices in the hands of their children, toddlers, and even babies in an effort to pacify or entertain them. This has one group of Apple investors worried; they are pressing the company to examine how this early screen time is affecting children’s young brains and how it is impacting their development.

This call to curb internet and gadget addiction in children has been met with some interest but a little pushback as well. The average teenager in the United States receives their first smartphone at around 10 years old and spends more than 4.5 hours each day on social media, gaming, and other internet based activities. Now major players in child welfare, such as Common Sense Media’s CEO James Steyer, are supporting the movement, citing cellphones as a public health concern, especially among children and teens.

By the time a child is 3 years old, they have formed 1,000 trillion neuron connections. Many of the life skills a child will need and use throughout their lifetime are at peak brain development from birth to around 4 or 5 years of age. This includes emotional control (peaks at around 1), social skills (peaks at around 2-3), and habitual responses (peaks at around 1). Think about that next time you see a young child tapping at a screen.

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