Smartphones are changing our brains

Over Thanksgiving weekend, Max went on an internet shopping spree, and we now live in a two-television household. This only four years after I first allowed cable service for the TV in our finished basement.

As I have written before, I firmly believe minimal screen time is essential to a healthy childhood — a position that leaves me feeling like Cassandra piteously trying to warn her fellow Trojans that the giant horse is loaded with murderous Greeks.

In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” people are controlled by fear. Reminders are plastered everywhere that Big Brother, who may or may not be a real person, is watching each and every citizen.

But instead of a totalitarian state forcibly monitoring us, we welcome screens (most of which mine our data and listen to our conversations) into every aspect of our lives. Like the victims of vampires, we must first invite these monsters into our homes before they can drain us.

The first iPhone was released in June of 2007, and smartphones soon became ubiquitous. Today’s college freshmen were about 6 years old in 2007, and few, if any, have memories of life without these pocket-sized screens.

Launched before smartphones — YouTube (2005), Facebook (2006) and Twitter (2006) — and after — Instagram (2010) and Snapchat (2011) — social media sites found the ground even more fertile on our handheld devices than anywhere else. Bored in a check-out line, a waiting room or the car? Scroll away.

The omnipresence of screens, both large and especially small, is changing our brains physiologically — most drastically those of children raised since the smartphone pandemic began.

Alison Gopnik, a psychologist and professor at the University of Berkeley who specializes in how children learn and develop has written that: “Each new generation of children grows up in the new environment its parents have created, and each generation of brains becomes wired in a different way. The human mind can change radically in just a few generations.”

In other words, what a child is exposed to impacts how his brain develops. For example, every baby is born with the capacity to speak any of the roughly 6,500 human languages. But as each child is exposed to the language spoken by her parents, her brain weeds out the facility for speaking most others.

On the second day of her life, our daughter, Lyra, was diagnosed with bilateral cataracts and immediately scheduled to have her lenses surgically removed. Doing so allowed her nascent brain to develop as that of a sighted, not blind, person.

Furthermore, brains eagerly release happy chemicals like dopamine and endorphins when stimulation feels rewarding, a bar set pretty low.

Remember Pavlov’s dogs? They automatically salivated when given food. After several weeks of playing a metronome just before feeding, the dogs began salivating whenever they heard the metronome — whether or not food appeared — which is a conditioned response.

Smartphone apps all benefit from a conditioned response in which a brain gets a “hit” of happy chemicals for irrelevant stimuli, such as how many likes a social media post receives or finding a new treasure or tool in a video game. YouTube algorithmically picks videos, based upon what you’ve previously watched, to pop up as soon as a video you’ve chosen ends.

Even adults whose childhoods consisted of only one screen — a TV with three, maybe four, channels — struggle not to check their phones whenever they have down time. Too many brains are now unwilling to digest material that requires active effort — i.e. dissemination, analysis, contemplation. Sales of books, magazines and newspapers have all suffered as a result.

I was the first in our family to have an iPhone and because I was ignorant of the many distractions they provide, I used it much as I had my previous phone, a Blackberry: I checked my email and text messages, and used the GPS.

Then five years ago, I naively bought iPhones for my older boys. A year later, Hugo handed me his iPhone and asked for service to be restored to his old flip phone. Unbeknownst to me, he had become addicted to YouTube, and it was sucking time away from things he cared deeply about, such as making music.

Two years later, Jules came to me with the same request. I’ll not make the same mistake with Leif and Lyra, who will have non-smartphones until they graduate from high school. And as with the big boys, no phones until the ninth grade.

I understand the impulse to give kids screens in order to keep them out of your hair while cooking dinner or working. But without screens, kids find something better to do.

Leif, who is 9, has read three of the seven Harry Potter books and listened to the other four on audiobooks from the library, often while creating structures with his LEGOs. And he plays.

Recently, two of Leif’s friends were over, running around our backyard with Zing Air Hyperstrike bows and arrows. It started raining and when the boys didn’t come in, I checked on them. They were building a fort with sticks fallen from our trees, which they had collected, not at all deterred by the December rain.

I am worried about today’s young people. Many of the college freshmen I teach are stunningly unaware of books, movies and television shows that were created for them. Instead, their brains have been fed a diet of social media and video games — a gruel as intellectually nutritious as water and sawdust.

Our new TV is on the main floor and requires a code for all programs. Over the holidays, it was often tuned to Turner Classic Movies, which Leif enjoys as much as the rest of us. But as soon as school resumed, so did the house rule: no screen time on school nights.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on January 12, 2020.

Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Inclusion is a blessing for all

I first saw Todd Eisinger’s photo in Firestone High School’s Hall of Fame when my eldest son, Claude, was a sophomore. Todd’s picture hangs alongside other accomplished Firestone alums, including astronaut Judith Resnik and rock star Chrissie Hynde.

Todd is in the lineup as an athlete who swam for Firestone. Later, in China in 2007, Todd won four medals in swimming events at the World Special Olympics Summer Games. For you see, Todd has Down syndrome.

In 2012, the same summer Claude graduated from Firestone, our daughter Lyra was born with Down syndrome. She was less than 24 hours old when my obstetrician asked if I knew Todd Eisinger. I said I did not, for I had never learned the name of the young man in the photo at Firestone.

The first weeks of Lyra’s life were unsurprisingly intense as Max and I experienced a rush of emotions and concerns. We knew little more than anecdotes about raising a child with DS. But even more distressing were the eye surgeries Lyra underwent at 5 weeks and 6 weeks old to remove her bilateral, congenital cataracts.

Two months later, as I pushed Lyra’s stroller into a shop, a clerk spied a book on Down syndrome in the stroller’s basket. She enthusiastically asked me, “Does your baby have Down syndrome?” When I told her she did, the young woman said her cousin Todd Eisinger had DS and he just blew her away — there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do when he set his mind to it.

In 1982, Debby and Lee Eisinger brought a child with DS into a world very different than I did in 2012. Things have changed because of the Eisingers and other parents who, in the 1980s and ’90s, adamantly advocated for their children. Their persistent work made possible endless opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities where few had existed before.

Perhaps the most important change has been the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life, rather than sequestering them, as was the norm for far too long. Todd’s life and accomplishments are a testament to the value of inclusion.

In Akron Public Schools, Lyra attends a general ed classroom where an aide keeps her on task. Each day, one of the school’s interventionists (what we used to call special ed teachers) pulls Lyra from her classroom for additional instruction.

Students enthusiastically greet Lyra in the hallways and classroom, often stopping to hug her. Kids understand what many adults do not yet, which is children with disabilities are not to be feared.

Unlike when her brothers were 7 years old, Lyra does not receive invitations to birthday parties or playdates. And this, I believe, is the legacy of parents who did not grow up in communities where children with disabilities were included and who are, therefore, unsure of what inviting such a child means and how they will behave.

Study after study has shown that inclusion maximizes the potential of children with disabilities. But it also benefits the typical population. Spending time with people who are not just like you increases awareness of how little different they actually are. This is as true with physical and intellectual abilities as it is with race, gender, religion and sexual orientation.

At last summer’s National Down Syndrome Congress convention, joining a church choir was on a long list of inclusion opportunities. As longtime readers may recall, two years ago Max and I, who are practicing Buddhists, joined the choir at Westminster Presbyterian Church because our dear friend Jim Mismas, who had been the organist and choir director for 23 years, was retiring.

Last year, after our friend retired, we attended church services from time to time, visiting with parishioners we now call friends.

This year, Leif and Lyra are members of the children’s choir, and we are again regularly attending church. Max sings with the adult choir while I sit with Leif and Lyra in the pews. I love singing in the choir, but equally enjoy nestling with our children for the first part of the service.

When the children’s sermon is called, Lyra gallops down the aisle to the chancel steps. Then, after the short talk, the kids are dismissed for their choir practice, which Max also attends, helping Lyra learn the routine.

Leif and Lyra wait to perform in the Westminster Christmas Pageant on Dec. 12This month, Leif and Lyra participated in the Christmas pageant. During the first rehearsal, Lyra, in the role of an angel, fiddled with her halo until it broke. Rehearsing on the morning of the pageant, Lyra refused to stand to the side of the chancel with the other angels. She wanted to sit on the steps with the manger animals. And so, shortly before the performance, Lyra became one of them.

“Sheep! Sheep!” Lyra repeated in the pew before the service began, her fuzzy costume covering her mouth. Several parishioners near us giggled with delight.

I do not believe any one religion is exclusively right and all others are wrong. I do believe it is important to tend to the spiritual lives of our children. And so, because most Buddhist centers are not set up to accommodate children, for many years I took my sons to a Buddhist family camp in Vermont. And yet, while a lovely way to spend a week, it is an inadequate substitute for a local spiritual community.

In a recent sermon, Westminster Presbyterian Church’s pastor told his congregation that a welcoming community makes visitors return and become members. This Presbyterian church within walking distance from our home openly invites our slightly unconventional family to participate in warm and thoughtful spiritual practice. And it is a place where Lyra is not just welcomed but cherished by members willing to meet her where she’s at. It’s a blessing to us all.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 29, 2019.