Living in a Visual Society (3)
Brian D. Dykstra, teacher at Hope PR Christian School in Walker, MI.
This is the third instalment of this series of Highlights articles about the effects of “screen time” on our children. I began with a glance at the beginning of sin. Satan often tempts us through our eyes, while God uses our ears through the preaching of the Word. We also wondered what is happening to our children’s ability to listen attentively for prolonged periods of time to sermons, when our visual age allows us to divert our attention quickly and search out other options when we begin to be bored.
Last time, I noted that physical therapists have actually began to see an increase in young patients whose upper spines have developed problems because of bad posture brought about by hours of observing screens. I also related what I had read about children’s ability to develop “emotional intelligence,” the ability to read other’s body language and facial expressions when much of today’s communication takes place through social media.
Having looked at several research papers, Katherine DeWeese’s thesis titled, “Screen Time, How Much is Too Much? The Social and Emotional Costs of Technology on the Adolescent Brain” serves our purposes well. (Her entire paper can be found at the Educational Research Information Center’s website. Enter ED546474 in the search box.)
Personal electronic devices with their portability and internet capabilities have made multitasking a way of life in society. The claim is that working on several projects at a time can increase worker productivity, especially in an office setting. However, adolescent multitasking has a different purpose. While doing school work, an adolescent is likely to remain connected to friends through social media. DeWeese reports that research shows academic performance declines when there are several social demands imposing on academic work.
DeWeese writes, “The brain can multitask but only by separating those tasks in the mind. The ability to do many things at once means the brain is splitting itself. If students engage in this each day for several hours, their brains will be forming neural pathways in a shortened capacity. It is similar to the difference between muscles used for sprinting and muscles used for long distance. Long and lean muscles need to be active for longer amounts of time and thus are used more. Tight and bulky muscles are used for speed, not endurance. We are training our brain for bursts of energy and not the contemplative long haul of life in a global world.”
She adds that, “technology, while enhancing the access to information, is stunting the ability to process information and think critically. Students are losing their ability to reflect, take time to think and ponder about questions to which they do not know the answer. The new generation’s solution is to immediately pick up the nearest device and ask Google. What is that teaching the students?”
Most educators are interested in providing their students with the skills needed to solve the world’s problems. In the view of many, society’s greatest threat is that humanity is soiling its own nest with its reliance on burning fossil fuels. We need new problem solvers in chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering in the interest of developing a green and sustainable economy and society.
We have more pressing concerns. Is there a doctrinal controversy in our denomination’s future? It has been quite some time since someone in a position of leadership has taken a hammer, even if the hammer had been used in a very subtle fashion, to our denominational foundation. Today’s students would not be able to “google” their way to a determination of truth or falsehood in those circumstances. They would have to be able to contemplate, and invest prolonged thought to analyze what would be said and written by those in opposing camps. We have witnessed what happens in following generations when the generation which experiences the controversy comes to the wrong conclusion about what the Bible teaches. We should not be so proud as to assume that we are immune to what we have seen develop elsewhere.
DeWeese then turns her research to a relative of multitasking, Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). This is a “situation in which the individual does not focus on any one thing in reality while he or she is engaged in and follows everything. While multitasking can be defined as doing many things at once in order to be more productive, CPA is constant fragmented attention that is motivated not by productivity, but by the desire to be connected.”
She goes on to relate a study done on digital natives, people who have grown up with technology. Researchers found “that the digital natives switch their attention between media platforms every other minute. Digital natives switch their attention at the first sign of boredom. The frequent switching results in low attention that limits their emotional response. This study strongly suggests a transformation ... that is rewiring the brains of a generation of Americans like never before ... Under this kind of stress, our brains instinctively signal the adrenal gland to secrete cortisol and adrenaline. In the short run, these stress hormones boost energy levels and augment memory, but over time they actually impair cognition, lead to depression, and alter the neural circuitry in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex—the brain regions that control mood and thought. Chronic and prolonged techno-brain burnout can even reshape the underlying brain structure.”
It has been many years since I took human physiology and embryology in college, so my response to this aspect of DeWeese’s research must be limited. However, we are wonderfully fashioned works of the Creator’s hand. We have both spiritual and physical aspects to us. God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground (his physical aspect) while breathing into him the breath of life (his spiritual aspect). These two are tightly bound, intricately intertwined into one creative work. I do not know how one determines cause and effect when considering the relationship between physical and spiritual problems. However, could problems in brain development lead to spiritual issues? Is over-use of modern technology indicative of a lack of vigorous spiritual growth? Maybe these questions are worth some thought.
If the effects on brain development in adolescents cited by DeWeese are true, we had better be careful on how much “screen time” we allow our children to have. Parents must be attentive to their children, not letting them drift along in our actual, physical presence while they wile away hours in the unreality of the ether of social media and the internet. Young minds are growing and developing, and parents must engage in face to face conversation with their children to ensure they are developing a rich spiritual life, not a life in which quality is measured by “likes,” Facebook “friends” or the frequency of times a smartphone vibrates, but a life in which they show evidence of seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.