We all know intuitively that too much screen time can’t be good for our child’s development. We may soon have proof. The British Time’s newspaper recently came out with a story profiling Susan Greenfield*, a neuroscientist who has developed theories regarding the negative influence of technology on the brain. Her idea is an interesting one, and relates specifically to an impairment of character, rather than ability.

Video Games Starve the Brain

The crux of her argument is this: because screen time activities such as computer games over-stimulate our brain centers related to goal-achievement, other important parts of the brain are starved and neglected, most specifically the parts related to contextualizing our actions within a complex world of cause and effect. Alarmingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the over-stimulation is caused by the brain chemical dopamine, responsible for addiction in many forms. The area of the brain which is neglected by this over-abundance of dopamine during video and computer game play is the prefrontal cortex. The Times states:

An under-functioning prefrontal cortex is linked with types of behaviour marked by total absorption in the here and now, and an inability to consider past and future implications. According to Greenfield, excessive dopamine can reduce the activity of brain cells in the prefrontal cortex, leading to its partial shutdown. She is speculating that the intense subjective “here and now” feeling, prompted and accompanied by dopamine “rewards” in computer play, creates a euphoric, self-centred ego boost, the pleasure of which can lead to craving and addiction.

What lasting effect does this repeated neglect in the prefrontal cortex have on the brain, and hence the mind? “Excessive dopamine hits might reduce activation in the prefrontal cortex, and in so doing tip the balance away from awareness of the significance, the meaning, of our actions,” she says.

Greenfield goes on to link these changes in our children’s brain development to the kinds of terrifying stories we hear these days of brutal violence among children. She hypothesizes that such events may go beyond a simple “imitation” of what children see in video games and films, that such activities in children may actually reflect a moral deficit in their neural systems. In other words, children these days may be developing with minds that are “ethically disabled.”

New Scientific Research for Video Game’s Effect

As the emphasis of her research work has been in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, Greenfield has as yet published no studies on brain development in children, so her statements are currently based on theories not evidence. Other scientists, however, have published research that may back her up.

Japanese neurophysiologist and brain-mapping expert Ryuta Kawashima published a study in 2001 comparing brain usage in video game play to that in other arithmetic games. Whereas the arithmetic games stimulated both sides of the frontal cortex, Nintendo game play did not. Similar to Greenfield, Kawashima predicted a more violent society as a result.

His findings indicated that children who play computer games halt the development process in other key areas of the brain, affecting their ability to control potentially anti-social elements of their behavior.

“There is a problem we will have with a new generation of children — who play computer games — that we have never seen before.”

“The implications are very serious for an increasingly violent society and these students will be doing more and more bad things if they are playing games and not doing other things like reading aloud or learning arithmetic.”

How Much Screen-Time is OK?

While the above scientists based their criticisms on computer and video games, not all screen time, or even all video games, have the same impact. For example, certain strategy games such as Sim City or Age of Mythology, are believed to have positive effects as well as negative:

It has also been found that playing these games could improve children’s logical thinking ability and problem solving skills. [Strategy games] help them to develop their logical skills and also help in decision making. Educational games help to improve their communication and problem solving abilities, alertness, locating things easily without straining too much and so on. American teachers have also found improvement in their students’ mathematics, spelling and reading amongst children who play these games.

It seems that the best choice is to limit and monitor screen-time while focusing on the positive: making sure to integrate reading time, social time, and other “real-life” problem-solving activities into your child’s life. Greenfield presents this formula for developing a child’s healthy identity:

“Through the world of focused conversation, nursery rhyme repetition, recitation and rote learning, of reading and writing interspersed with bouts of physical activity in the real world, where there are first-hand and unique adventures to provide a personal narrative, personalised neuronal connections. This is education as we have known it.”

Our Screen-Time Limitation Strategy

Having both a baby and a twelve-year old, as well as being an ex-computer programmer and part-time Gen-X ‘gamer’ myself, I can say that I’ve learned some lessons that I hope to apply with my newest child, and I’m constantly learning and adapting.

Since successfully enjoying a week away from games recently during TV Turnoff Week, we’ve decided as a family on a new strategy: Week-On / Week-Off. It is what it sounds: one week on for video games, DVD’s, TV, etc…. followed by one-week off and time for board games and walks and baking and adventures.

Our main impetus for the choice? My son. He actually volunteered the idea, saying that having a full week on (which for him means no more than 14 hours per week and no more than 1 hour per school day) will allow him to fully enjoy his games when he can, while a week completely off will allow him to set it aside and get creative with family activities. The fact that this morning before school he, a real live 12-year old, actually volunteered, “So no screen time next week, right?” has me psyched and willing to try!

Whichever method you choose for your family, I hope your focus will be on enjoyment vs. sacrifice. For some inspirational ideas try Unplug Your Kids, a blog with a Weekly Unplugged Project, such as her most recent suggestions for assisting birds with their springtime nest-building. Enjoy!


Mama Hope

* A word to feminists! You may find the need to skip past nearly the entire first-half of the Times story. To my ears, it is embarrassing the extent to which the author feels the need to objectify Susan Greenfield as a sexual creature before getting to the crux of the story. If you do as I say and skip past the intro., you’ll miss such lovelies as these: “She, in laboratory mode, is dressed down in a beautifully cut Russian-red jacket; a sleeveless, artificial-fur-lined silvery waistcoat; charcoal Armani trousers; a fetching beret (hint of Rasta-chic); and patent platform lace-up ankle boots.” “The men are mesmerised; the women beadily eye her outfit. It’s cold, and threatening rain, but she has lent a touch of warmth and glamour to the melancholy context of the proceedings.” (Sorry but I couldn’t help but out these so you can share in my disgust and amazement!)

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