Protecting Our Children’s Brains
Updated on 12th Nov 2019
This may just be the most important article I’ve written so far… A few months ago I talked to Parents of Anxious Teenagers. I now need to talk to ALL parents about something even more important…
While doing research for my future book “The End of Anxiety”, I’ve come across studies that dramatically show the impact of modern habits on brain development.
What you’re going to read will probably be both interesting and shocking, and there are two main reasons I’m so eager to share it with you…
- It’s unlikely you’ll have heard of most of these studies, in particular, those written by French-speaking scientists and experts. While they’re really gaining traction in French-language mainstream media, I have yet to find much echo in English ones.
- If you have young children or are planning to have some, then time is of the essence. You don’t want to be in a situation where further down the line you think “I wish I had known that”.
I didn’t want this article to be too long, so for each topic, I’ve summarised the problem, suggested solutions, and given you some references to allow you further investigation. However, I would suggest reading it all even if it’s one paragraph a day.
Impact of screen usage on children
Dr. Michel Desmurget is a neuroscientist, director at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. In his latest book published a few weeks ago, he starts with some hard facts I’ve summarised in the following table:
Average daily screen usage (mobile, tablet, tv…) in western countries
|Age||Hrs/Day||Hrs/Year||Equivalent School Time||% Awake Time|
On average, kids spend between 1/4 and 2/5 of their awake time using screens, i.e. longer than at school. But what are the consequences of such exposure?
You may have read some reassuring articles, like these ones I picked from UK & US sources: “Screen time might not be as ‘toxic’ for kids as you think” – “Why Parents Shouldn’t Be Too Worried Over WHO’s New Guidelines for Screen Time for Children” – “Teens ‘not damaged by screen time’, study finds“
The trouble with individual reports/studies is that they may not be very reliable (e.g. too limited, not scientific, partial to lobbies etc…), so Dr Desmurget decided to do a meta-study, taking 3 years to analyse 1500 scientific papers. The results compiled in his book are clear but frightening; the increasing use of screens by children have the following consequences:
- Lower IQ: The current generation appears to be the first one in history showing a reduction in IQ compared to their parents’ generation.
- Reduced ability to speak, write, memorise, concentrate and take risks.
- Lack of social skills, emotional intelligence and resilience.
- Increase in aggressive behaviour, depression, anxiety and suicide.
- More obesity, risk on cardiovascular development and lower life expectancy (another first in our civilisation).
Humans v Machines
Did you know the IQ of children and their ability to learn depends on how much parents talk to them, and how many words they use? Now consider this: a child listening to adults will hear an average of 1000 words an hour, but listening to a digital platform that number drops to only 150.
Moreover, to teach a new word, a human will only need to repeat it a few times (be careful about your swearing!). Via digital equipment, the same word would need to be repeated 70 times, and still, the learning won’t have the same quality, because it lacks the sensory associations unique to the human interactions (face, emotions…). So children may know a word, but not understand it.
The reason for this is simple, the brain of children is designed to learn from humans, only later in life will they have the capacity to learn via screens. Spatial awareness, seeing the subtleties of facial expression and experiencing the ‘whole thing’ during an interaction with a human, is what really matters for a child to learn.
Teenagers spend so much time in the virtual world, that some schools have designed classes on social skills: how to read a face, identify body languages and intonations. Isn’t this both shocking and sad?
Have you heard of Accessible Litterature? It is a euphemism for the simplification, some say “dumbing down”, of books written, or even rewritten, to remove complex sentences, tenses and vocabulary, including books that were originally written for children.
Desmurget also found that children need to learn in a quiet environment. Too much stimulation causes the brains to develop improperly, and may also encourage addictions. Boredom is beneficial to brain development, for many reasons.
Developers of platforms such as Facebook have admitted that they were designed to be addictive. They hire neuroscientists to apply proven methods previously used in the gambling industry, such as “random rewards”, developed in the 50s by B. F. Skinner. In fact, their executives are so aware of these negative influences that they make sure their own kids avoid the very platforms they helped develop.
In my work, I’ve noticed that social media is having a detrimental effect on children’s brains, and in particular on their emotional development, so it comes as no surprise that is becoming one of the largest causes of mental health problems later in life.
Pilates expert Vanessa Declercq was telling me how regular screen use not only damages posture, but also the connective tissues linking to internal organs, which has been linked to increased depression.
Multiple studies have found child suicides and a myriad of other problems are on the rise.
The Decline of Handwriting
Denis Alamargot, a professor of human cognition conducts research into analysing eye and pen movements, here is what he found:
- A study on 10 yr-old pupils shows that when using digital equipment the quality of their writing regresses by 2 years.
- Writing on a tablet using a stylus is so unnatural that the brain has to constantly adjust, a bit like driving on ice.
- Handwriting uses parts of the brain linked to motricity, memory, shapes recognition etc… Compare that to pressing a key… No wonder that handwriting makes letters & words quicker to identify/memorise, and improves spelling.
- Digital equipment has some benefits (spelling/grammatical corrections) but they still need to evolve in order to become closer to handwriting.
How much time should my Kids Spend on Screens?
Until the age of 6, there’s NO benefit whatsoever, only negative effects on either their intellectual development or soft skills. Desmurget categorically states that any more than 10 minutes in front of any screen is detrimental.
Unless you have a very specific short term usage (e.g. something a therapist has recommended), don’t let children spend any time in front of screens, and they should definitely not own a tablet or phone. Yes, it will be challenging, yes they’ll kick and scream, telling you that you are ruining their social life, but no study has ever shown it to be true.
Now the good news; parents originally worried about implementing such a drastic change, find their children do adjust surprisingly quickly, to quality time, talking and playing. The earlier the better, and they’ll thank you later.
In the UK we don’t seem to have official guidelines. I’ve searched on gov.uk and nice.org.uk but sadly could find nothing. Are they too busy with Brexit? Are tech lobbies too influential?
The rare articles I found tell us not to worry, or there is a link but we lack evidence… Yet, half of the parents want mobile phones banned in schools, so they are forced to campaign in their individual schools, which explains why currently only 15% of them have some kind of ban in place.
Please tell me if I’ve missed something, share your findings or experience (using the comment box located at the end of this article) and let’s discuss.
Contrast that to France, one of the countries taking this seriously:
- Since 2015 WiFi & wireless devices are banned from nurseries and reduced in Elementary
- Since 2018 mobile phones are banned in all schools
- Teachers must teach writing using the cursive form, instead of the script method now promoted in countries such as Finland and the US.
- The French government has hired a team of 18 education experts led by neuroscientist Boris Cyrulnik to determine the best way to bring children up mentally and emotionally, focusing on the first 1000 days of their lives (i.e. until they start talking).
In Taiwan by the way, you risk a £1500 fine if you expose any infant to a screen, or any minor to more than 30 minutes at the time.
What can parents do?
We already know the planet we are leaving to future generations is becoming increasingly damaged. The last thing we want is also let our kids impair their brain and emotional health, wandering mindlessly in artificial realities ruled by algorithms.
Do you know why Indian parents insist their kids learn how to eat using their fingers? Because it teaches them dexterity; each finger has a particular function, and the millions of nerve endings relay messages to the brain, which develops coordination skills, and also prepares the stomach for digestion. This knowledge is passed from generation to generation.
12 Tips to Help Children Develop their Brain
- No screen time before the age of 6, which also means adults should avoid interacting with their mobile phone whilst they are around children. Replace that time with human interactions and creativity.
- After the age of 6: no more than 1 hour a day, preferably no more than 1/2 hour, but not early in the morning, at mealtimes, or before bedtime, and ideally educational content with the guidance of an adult.
- Reduce home lightning at night, in particular, LED/blue lights.
- Before they can read let them learn skills, as opposed to trying to teach them pure knowledge.
- Encourage children to be as kinaesthetic as possible, write with pens. Later teach them mind maps.
- At home have a ‘quiet’ room, with no screen or noise, with books, physical toys and board games (instead of video games).
- Go outside for sensory stimulation, teaching about fruits, vegetables, trees, plants, birds, animals etc… using all the senses: sight, sounds, smell, touch, taste.
- Use Focused Attention meditation, looking intensely at a chosen object, image, plants etc… asking them to describe all the minute details, this is a good precursor to learn mindfulness later.
- Encourage activities promoting serendipity: engage discussions with new people, listen without talking, explore new locations, eat new food, read new magazines, visit new places…
- Find schools that don’t allow mobile phones, preferably a quiet school, away from noise disturbances.
- Practice exercises that improve posture, such as Pilates, Yoga, Rowing etc…
- Consider Neurodevelopment. Read my previous tips for parents of anxious children and listen to Denise’s podcast.
A Message for Expectant Mothers
A baby’s genes are inherited from their parents, there’s not much you can do about that. However, what not many people know is that genes still need to be activated, and this ‘gene expression’ depends on environmental factors. This is called epigenetics, a field I first read about 20 years ago, through the work of biologist Bruce Lipton.
The development of the embryo and foetus is therefore influenced by its environment, typically the food and hormones released by the expectant mother. So if, for example, a mother experiences regular stress, e.g. fear or anxiety, the insecurity messages will influence its development.
Now in most cases, there’s no real threat, just a perceived one (I discuss this in Anxiety & Recovery), but the body doesn’t know that, so nature will prepare the baby to be born in a stressful environment, which may explain why some newborns don’t engage as much as you’d expect, or even be on the autism spectrum.
So the message here is clear, pregnant women must, as much as possible, avoid stress, conflicts and toxic situations.
A Message for Single Parents
Boris Cyrulnik, the lead neuropsychiatrist hired by Président Macron, also a specialist in resilience and attachment theory, explains how essential it is for kids to have more than one person at home. If the father is not present, the role can be played by another man, another woman, or even a grandmother, it doesn’t really matter. This will have the dual role of making the mother feel safe, and opening the child emotionally, preventing an emotional lock that could be damaging.
Dyslexia, ADD, Autism
I recommend you watch this interview with Niki McGlynn where we discuss ways to repair damages that may have been done earlier in life, in particular children struggling with focus, attention, behaviour, late bed-wetting, dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADD etc…
- Neuro-development for Learning & Behavioural Difficulties - Niki McGlynn tells us how NeuroDevelopment can help with learning & behavioural difficulties. It is particularly interesting if you are a parent, work with children, or have difficulties yourself.
Adults, don’t rest on your laurels…
Consider this; taxi drivers who only rely on GPS guidance have a smaller Hippocampus. This will come as a consolation for London cabbies still forced to rely on The Knowledge, and a concern to the future of humankind in the wake of an AI revolution.
It’s time to wake up, to become increasingly mindful, before buying a new piece of technology, before installing a new app, ask your brain “Is this really going to enrich my life? What will be a safe limit for using it?”
The brain remains plastic (neuroplasticity) even late in life, so limit your technology usage; question whether the latest tech craze is really enhancing your life, keep doing mental calculations, keep recalling phone numbers, and keep old fashioned techniques alive.
Until Desmurget’s book is translated in English, if you need more convincing about the effect of technology I recommend the following:
- TED Talk from Adam Alter on the effect of screens.
- To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more (W.H.O)
- Computers ‘do not improve’ pupil results (OECD)
… but Don’t Panic
I appreciate much of this article can appear scary, but far from wanting you to feel anxious, I want you to be empowered. There’s so much you can do, so I invite you to attend the following Zoom interview with Niki McGlynn, and also subscribe to my Anxiety Buster podcast as an upcoming episode will be for parents feeling anxious about the future of their children.
If you know other parents that you feel may be interested in this article then feel free to share it using on the links below.
Let’s also use the comment box underneath to keep the conversation alive, and add related links or studies we may find.