How Technology is Rewiring the Brains of our Children
In my last article, I discussed how technology has improved our ability to access large volumes of information and use it for improving productivity, efficiency and reducing waste. I also discussed how the use of technology is affecting our youth in potentially harmful ways regarding their ability to interact with the world around them. Some of the key negative results are the inability to pick up on social cues, reduced concentration, and increased incidents of violent behavior.
In this article, I will summarize data collected from The Kaiser Family Foundation Study. This study is one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind. It includes data covering the amount and nature of media use among 8 to 18-year-olds in America. The study size included 2,000 young people from across the country, and it included data covering various types of media including TV, computer, music, print, cell, and movies. It is one of the only studies of its kind that covered time spent media multitasking.1
Kaiser Family Foundation Study
The Kaiser Family Foundation Study is also unique for the fact that it has completed its 3rd wave since 1999. In addition to the information it provides about media use by the young, it also is able to track the changes in media habits, as well. The initial study was released in 1999, the second in 2004 and the most recent in 2009. In searching for preliminary data for another wave of this study, it is not yet available; however, based on previous trends another may be expected later this year or the next. Though the results of the most recent study are 5 years old this year, they should not be disregarded, because the trends they demonstrate in media use and impact is clearly observable in the everyday life of our nation’s youth.
Some of the key findings of the study showed that between the 5 year period of 2004 and 2009 media usage jumped from a total of 6:21 (hours: minutes) to 7:38 on average (table 1: Media Use Over Time). Taking into consideration media multitasking (using more than one medium at the same time), kids are able to pack in more than 10:15 of media content in that 7:38. Another important finding revealed that the use of every type of digital media increased over the past wave of the study with the exception of printed material (books), and, in fact, printed material use decreased slightly.
The increase in mobile and online media has been one of the key driving forces in the increased consumption of media by youth. In contrast to previous years when one could only watch TV content by sitting in front of the TV at a designated time. Now, anyone can watch almost anything whenever and wherever they want by use of smartphones, tablets and laptops. So, they are consuming media in their bedrooms, commuting, between classes and every other possible moment they can find to occupy their “downtime” (Table 2: Changes in Media Use 2004-2009).
This study also examined the relationship between media, grades and personal contentment. In order to compare the relationships, individuals were grouped into one of 3 categories: light users that accounted for 17% (<3 hrs/day), moderate users that accounted for 63% (3-16 hrs/day), and heavy users that accounted for 21% (>16 hrs/day). Grades were defined as good (A’s and B’s), and fair to poor (C’s and lower). The findings demonstrated that more than twice as many heavy media users relayed data that they usually get fair to poor grades compared to the light media users. Personal contentment was measured with statements that included: have a lot of friends, get along well with their parents, have been happy at school this year, are often bored, get into trouble a lot, and are often sad or unhappy. With the exception of having a lot of friends, all measures of contentment were inversely proportional to the amount of media use. The relationships between media and grades and media and personal contentment held up to controls that accounted for factors including age, gender, race, parent education and family structure (one vs two-parent household).
Media Use by Age Group
Other interesting points that the study revealed is that the highest level of media use was by the age group 11-14-year-olds, 4 hours more than the 8-10-year-old group and 30 minutes more than the 15-18-year-old group. The greatest demographic increase in media use was ethnicity where the highest users were black and Hispanic demonstrating 4.5 hours more media per day than white. Gender difference found the boys averaged about 1 hour more than girls (table 3: Total media Exposure, by Demographics).
The study also revealed that in homes where rules governing media use were established; significantly less time (3-4 hrs.) was spent with media compared to households that did not have any rules on media use.
Impacts of Technology on Developing Minds
In my previous article in December, I discussed the negative impacts of increased technology use on young developing minds. These included an increase in physical, psychological and behavioral disorders. In order for us to help ones that are affected, we must understand that in order for any child to thrive they require movement, touch, human connection and exposure to nature. This type of exposure enables the development of good posture, symmetric coordination (hand-eye and focus), and concentration. Young children require about 2-3 hours per day of rough and tumble play to exercise vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems. Stimulation received through touching, hugging, and play is important for the development of the cerebellum and planned movement patterns. Touch also activates the parasympathetic nervous system lowering cortisol, adrenaline and anxiety.2
With the findings of this study and others like it, we as physicians have a responsibility to our youth to encourage further examination into the effects media is having on the minds of our youth as well as to educate parents on the importance of responsible use. Just as our EHR requires us to educate our patients about smoking cessation, weight/diet control, alcohol use and provide them with educational materials or counseling; we must do the same for the youth we treat. In the past 5 years, I have been seeing and treating increasing numbers of youth for problems ranging from headaches, neck pain, upper back pain, and ADD/ADHD. Some of these conditions I have been able to attribute to long hours of media use. We should be able to communicate with the parents of our young patients and provide them with materials such as the Kaiser Family Foundation Study “Generation M2” to help them better understand the potential impacts of unregulated media exposure.
1. Rideout, Vicotris J.; Foehr, Ulla G.; Roberts, Donald F. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, January 2010
2. Rowan, Cris. “The Impact of Technology on the Developing Child.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 May 2013. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.