Can you imagine what your children could do with seven more hours in a day? That is a lot more books to read, games to play and quality time spent with loved ones.
It transpires that those elusive extra hours may not be so hard to find after all.
As children today spend more time using technology than ever before (averaging those seven precious hours a day), it is time we considered what may be happening in the brains of these young people.
Growing up in 2021 means that the answer to any question is at your fingertips. As a result of this, is memory retention suffering? With skim reading becoming the norm will students ever develop the critical thinking skills necessary for thorough analysis of texts and literature? Are we harming our youth by not educating ourselves about solutions for these problems?
Can we wean ourselves off digital dependency?
This academic year will never be forgotten by students or educators. Younger students brought devices to school for the first time. Instead of creating games in the playground at lunch time, safety took precedence and social distancing measures were adhered to. A teacher was never without a device as we catered for students who opted to remain at home in these unusual times.
Technology saved education during the pandemic and we are all grateful for that. But have we really considered the potential negative effects of this new dependency?
Many of us believe ourselves to be adept multitaskers. We can hold a conversation with a co-worker, respond to emails, all while simultaneously reading whatever pops up on our phones. As we flit from one task to the next, is anything being done well? What about students who eat their lunch, chat to their peers and scroll through their iPads at break time?
Online distractions prove challenging
Daniel Levitin, an American neuroscientist, has written at length about children’s attention span. His concerns are that children’s prefrontal cortex and underlying central executive system have not yet learned the rewards of sustained effort and attention.
Multi-tasking can produce the stress hormone cortisol or the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. With the brain over-stimulated, Levitin says that multitasking creates a dopamine – addiction loop which rewards the brain for losing focus and searching for external stimulation. This explains why that hit from a mindless scroll seems like a good idea even when there is a more important task to be done.
In addition to this, using devices that emit blue light at night is associated with reduced melatonin concentration which impacts sleep duration and quality. Many studies have shown that a lack of adequate shut eye is associated with poor cognitive function and memory retention which can directly impact learning.
Getting lost in a book for hours on end is a childhood memory for those of us who grew up without devices. Deep reading has numerous positive benefits – it develops critical thinking, abstract thought, empathy, creativity, and divergent thinking.
Building a biliterate brain
Now it is hard to find time to read without being interrupted by notifications. Even if we put our phones away, our minds still wander and contemplate what we could be missing out on. Maryanne Wolf is a neuroscientist who has studied the reading brain. When she found herself unable to engage in deep reading like she did as a child, she sought out a solution to the problem faced by all of us who are readers in the digital age.
Rather than try to reform to old ways and paint technology as the enemy, she promotes the idea of building a biliterate brain.
Similarly to the way young bilingual children learn to speak two languages, Wolf suggests building a childhood that exhibits the correct balance between print and digital communications. Until five years of age, Wolf suggests print medium should be the main focus and after five, a gradual introduction of digital medium is optimum for a healthy relationship with technology. This correlates with the World Health Organisation guidelines of less than 1 hour screen time per day for children between two and four.
Wolf states that if we approached technology in this way, by the time children reach adulthood their brains would be masterpieces of cognitive and linguistic flexibility. Children would learn from the outset that each medium, like each language, has its own rules, characteristics and best purposes and would be confident to navigate both safely.
Adults can lead the way
The best way to encourage healthy technology use is to lead by example. If your children see you putting your phone away, they will be more likely to follow suit.
Creating a balance between online and offline activities will instil healthy habits in children. If children know there are other options for having fun such as cooking together, reading, playing board games, arts and crafts or exercising, technology will just be one of many options.
Dr Thoraiya Kanafani is a clinical psychologist at the Human Relations Clinic in Dubai. She states that there are numerous benefits to some time without technology but that it is not easy.
“Disconnecting from technology is difficult for many adults, let alone the digital natives. However, the benefits of disconnecting for longer periods of time during the summer can definitely bring on initial frustrations but eventual significant benefits for students”. She goes on to say that the benefits of disconnecting include “an increase of focus, experiencing the present, strengthening social skills, enhancing empathy and building communication skills.”
We can reap these rewards without complete disconnection. Like all good things in life, balance is key. A healthy relationship with your phone and device combined with adequate understanding of how to support your child growing up as a digital native will be enough to ensure you enjoy its benefits and set your child up for success. We do not need to completely shut down, just pressing reset may be enough.
Claire Heylin is primary English lead at Deira International School in Dubai