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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Disappearing Focus & Eroding Empathy – the Developing Brain on Tech

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

Nine hours a day. That’s how much time adolescents are said to be engaged every day with digital media. Over 60 hours a week.

It’s the most dominant thing in the average teenager’s life. Not school. Not sports. Not friends or hobbies or parents. Not a j-o-b. Not even sleep.

Scientists and psychologists are especially concerned with the impact all that time online is having on brains still under development.

Digital drug addiction

The research has long been in.

As far as the kid’s brain is concerned, addiction is addiction.

Dr. Nicolas Kardaras, author and expert on tech addiction, has found that technology overuse is having the same physically damaging impact to developing brains as drug addiction.

Brain imaging shows that technology addiction mirrors the same effect on the brain as does cocaine. Glowing screens big and little activate the brain’s pleasure center and dopamine hits help keep the addiction going.

The frontal cortex is where impulse control lives. It’s houses important executive functioning skills like attention span, self-control, organization; the ability to take initiative, prioritize and manage time.

For anyone seeking to launch and maintain a functioning life, these things can be of help.

Instead, all the tech use is wiring young brains for constant and immediate gratification – the exact opposite of what’s required for goal-setting, planning and perseverance.

The developing brain, screen time & attention span

Before digital brain cocaine, there were books.

Psychologist and author, Dr. Jim Taylor notes that in past generations, children spent significant time reading books which required long periods of focus and attention, and memory and imagination.

He says TV changed all that.

Images were provided for children, leaving imaginations less practiced. Today, the majority of children are passive consumers of information. With all the screen

time, it’s more than just young imaginations and creativity at stake.

Early TV exposure has been linked to later problems with impulsiveness, disorganization, distractibility and problems paying attention.

In fact, study after study has linked all the screen time (phones, TV and video games) to problems with attention and focus which can be particularly problematic.

According to Dr. Taylor, the ability to pay attention is the “gateway to thinking”. It is only through that door that things like learning, memory, problem-solving and creativity can thrive.

The brain on information overload

From homework and instruction in class, to chores and even reading a book, the ability to concentrate and focus on one thing for any length of time is being compromised.

Problem with paying attention leads to a more difficult time learning and retaining content. Information overload and constant distractions also make it harder for brains to differentiate and prioritize important information from the irrelevant.

Additionally, the internet is being used as a brain-crutch. The more dependence on consulting the internet for an answer, the less likely the brain will go through the effort of even forming a memory.

“Excessive device use leads to changes in a child’s brain that can negatively impact all areas of their life.”
– Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Overload, stimulation & psycho-social well-being

Research links excessive screen time to a whole host of emotional, behavioral and social problems.

Hundreds of studies link all the screens to increased depression, anxiety, problems sleeping, school burnout and aggressive and delinquent behaviors.

According to research by Twenge & Campbell (2018), the line between healthy digital use and careening off the tracks: one hour a day.

The researchers took a comprehensive look at the impact of screen time on children and adolescents ages 2 to 17 years of age on psychological well-being. They found that over 1 hour per day of daily screen time was linked to worse off psychological well-being.

Kids and teens who used screens more than an hour a day showed less self-control and emotional stability. They were less curious. They were more distracted and lacked the ability to follow-through and complete tasks.

Comparing teens that averaged 7+ hours per day on screens, to the magical unicorn group of kids that use devices no more than 1 hour a day, they were twice as likely over the past year to be in treatment for depression, anxiety or other psychological issues.

They were more difficult, had lower self-esteem and had problems making friends.

Research shows that tech overuse threatens emotional development and healthy socialization and relationships with others. The underlying foundation of empathy that connects us with others is less modeled, less valued and less practiced the more time spent online.

“We’re raising a generation of children who are uncomfortable with building relationships directly and prefer to have a screen between them and the world.”
– Cat Jennings

Balance, boundaries and the bad guy

Your future adult may need her prefrontal cortex someday.

The inconvenient truth is that too much time on screens threatens brain functioning.

Though unquestionably unpopular, the obvious starting place is limiting the technology use that’s been clearly implicated in damaging the development of concentration, impulse control, memory and empathy - just for starters.

Her brain, mental health and future attention span are worth the fight.

“Being close to nature, in general, helps boost a child’s attention span.”
~ Richard Louv


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