Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is the Internet Changing the Chemistry of Our Children's Brains?

English: XBox 360 wired controller. Français :...

Were electronics among the gifts your children received this Christmas?  I'm betting the answer is yes.  I know of kindergarteners who have more electronic gadgets than adults.  Ipods, ipads, Xboxes, iphones; kids and teens are more tuned in and turned on than ever.

Is this trend healthy for our brains?  Here's some research taken from an article published in the July issue of Newsweek magazine:

  • The average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 texts a month, four times the 2007 number. The average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month, double the 2007 figure. 
  • In less than the span of a single childhood, Americans have merged with their machines, staring at a screen for at least eight hours a day, more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping. Teens fit some seven hours of screen time into the average school day; 11, if you count time spent multitasking on several devices. 
  • When the 2013 DSM is released, Internet Addiction Disorder will be included for the first time, albeit in an appendix tagged for “further study.” 
  • Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, argues that “the computer is like electronic cocaine,” fueling cycles of mania followed by depressive stretches. 
  •  In 2008 Gary Small, the head of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center, was the first to document changes in the brain as a result of even moderate Internet use. He rounded up 24 people, half of them experienced Web users, half of them newbies, and he passed them each through a brain scanner. The difference was striking, with the Web users displaying fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes. But the real surprise was what happened next. The novices went away for a week, and were asked to spend a total of five hours online and then return for another scan. “The naive subjects had already rewired their brains,” he later wrote.
  • The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts. In a study published in January, Chinese researchers found “abnormal white matter”—essentially extra nerve cells built for speed—in the areas charged with attention, control, and executive function. A parallel study found similar changes in the brains of videogame addicts. 
  • And both studies come on the heels of other Chinese results that link Internet addiction to “structural abnormalities in gray matter,” namely shrinkage of 10 to 20 percent in the area of the brain responsible for processing of speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information. And worse, the shrinkage never stopped: the more time online, the more the brain showed signs of “atrophy.”
  • Last year, when MTV polled its 13- to 30-year-old viewers on their Web habits, most felt “defined” by what they put online, “exhausted” by always having to be putting it out there, and utterly unable to look away for fear of missing out. “FOMO,” the network called it.

What's a parent to do?  As I see it, there are three choices:

  1. Withdrawal. You take away all electronics, video games etc.  
  2. Immersion. You shrug your shoulders, give up and hope your children learn to monitor themselves and develop good habits.  
  3. Moderation. You become intentional about your child's AND your internet and electronics usage,  understanding the benefits and problems.
I'm a fan of the last option. A most important factor is the role model that the parent sets in the family.  Here are some important questions to ask ourselves:

  • How much time do the adults in the home spend on the internet or playing video games?  
  • When you are with the children in your life are you truly focused on the interaction?  Or are you texting, answering email, or otherwise engaged?
  • Do you use the television, internet, or video games as a babysitter?  How often and for how long?
  • What rules do you have in your home regarding video games and internet usage?   
  • Does your family interact, play and work together without being wired electronically to do it?   
I believe the internet is a powerful addition to our lives and can be used for positive growth and communication.  It can also be a detriment, creating children and adults who are isolated and lacking in social skills and real relationships.  It's a choice that we make but we must be intentional and proactive.

How does your family handle these questions?  Are electronics a positive or a negative force in your family?  

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  1. Lynne, this really made me think about how much time I spend on-line. Yikes! You've inspired me to step back a bit in the new year.
    Wonderful post!

  2. OMG ... excellent post! This is actually the first year in what seems like forever that we did NOT purchase any electronics for our kids and it excited me!!

    I've got to share this at school in my parent resource center ... would that be ok?

    The Corner On Character