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.


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