Screens, good or bad?
I’m not against screen time; in fact, I share Dr David Eagleman’s view on screens, or more specifically, the content and information transmitted on screens shared between billions of brains each day. Technology has shown to be a significant force in our present lives and offers our children an incredible advantage over every generation that came before them. Take two significant benefits today’s technology provides our children and us.
Simply put, off-loading is the ability to off-load non-critical information onto external mediums or devices, allowing your brain to retain more information with minimal effort and energy than in the past. (Your brain can store around 2.5TB of data which is tremendous; however, for £7 per month on Apple’s iCloud, you can almost double that capacity.) Off-loading started very early on. Some of the earliest examples are cave paintings transferring information from one brain to another, allowing for learning, which is an enormous advantage in evolutionary terms. Fast forward to digital technology, and we find ourselves almost lost in a mountainous cave complex of information and learning opportunities turning a singular mediocre intelligent Homo Sapien into an uber genius organism.
Ideation is the formation of ideas and concepts. What’s important to share with you here is that every new idea you have is a mash-up of your past experiences; think about it in terms of the classic expression “connecting the dots” – every stored past experience is a dot you can link together to produce new ideas. Dr Beau Lotto offers a fantastic hypothesis about creativity and connecting the dots. He explains that the difference between a creative and a non-creative person is that the creative person has access to more dots to connect. Suppose his hypothesis is accurate – I believe it is – then we can all become more creative by letting in more diverse experiences by being more open-minded to new input. You and your child have access and storage potential for more experiences and dots than even the most remarkable artists and thinkers in the past could have dreamt of, and it all fits in the palm of your child’s hand.
There’s no debate about it technology has the potential to make our children more intelligent, opening doors that never existed. However, and this is a considerable ‘HOWEVER’, the more powerful the tool, the more respect, caution, discipline and moderation is needed. Our technology has ‘out evolved’ our own by orders of magnitude. We must educate ourselves about the risk of this deficiency and how to best use this phenomenal tool if we hope to enrich our experiences rather than fouling it. We risk the possibility of quite literally losing our minds if we fail to do so.
(I will only address the hardware ‘screen time’ aspect in this blog post as the scope for the impact of software on our brains and psyche is a subject requiring a fair amount of unpacking. Please do not allow your child any access to social media if they are under the age of 16.)
There’s no precise answer in minutes and hours; however, the biggest clue may lie in our natural circadian rhythms, an inner clock set by millions of years of evolution.
To start, you and your child should avoid small screen exposure in the first hour of the day. When you wake up, your nervous system is susceptible to priming as it readies itself for the day ahead. As mentioned in my previous blogs, prediction is a large part of our mental processing, and for you to predict an outcome, you first need a reference point; put another way, how you start your day will most likely set the tone for the rest of your day. If the first thing you do in the morning is jumping onto your phone, the chances are good that you will prime or charge up your nervous system with a fight or flight and anxious energy, potentially setting yourself up for a bad day. Instead, you want first to expose your eyes to natural light in the morning. Morning light signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus – a tiny but essential part deep in your brain – to kickstart your day in terms of your inner rhythm. This rhythm regulates everything from your hormones, immune system and metabolism, setting you up for a more manageable day and healthy twenty-four hours.
Moving on from early morning, we get a relatively good ‘dead’ zone for screen exposure where exposure to screens seems to have little effect on our circadian hygiene. This dead zone period seems to last until 4 pm, when we approach the ‘slow down’ phase of our day, and the eyes have become highly sensitised to light. Interestingly, you can negate the effect of screen time and light in the evening by getting ample natural light during the day.
Screen time, especially smaller screens – and’ overhead light – should be avoided at least 2 hours before bed. Beaming bright blue light at the retina of your eye at night sends a confusing signal to the suprachiasmatic nucleus, effectively telling your brain that it’s still daytime, delaying the release of melatonin which slows the onset of sleep. This delay confuses your inner clock and knocks your internal rhythm out of sync for days to come resulting in imbalances across the body and brain.
An important side note, melatonin does not cause sleep, it merely signals to the brain that it’s nearing a period of sleep. So, if your child’s bedtime is at 20:00, then screen time, overhead light, and any digital bright light should be avoided, at the very least, from 18:00 onwards.
*IMPORTANT! NEVER give your child melatonin supplements. Melatonin is a severe endocrine or hormone disrupter and can cause harmful effects on your child’s development. Avoid all sleep medications as these merely knock the brain out and do not generate the deep restorative sleep needed for brain processes such as memory consolidation and vital clearing of toxic metabolic waste. If you or your loved ones are struggling with sleep please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another challenge that screen time brings is the issue of sedentary behaviour. Our bodies evolved to move, and it needs movement for several aspects, including speech fluidity, so we must move often. We encourage a token economy system at bambooh where you, as the patent, use screen time to award activity at home as a currency. For example, for every 10mins walking, exercising or playing rough and tumble, your child can earn 30mins screen time. It’s an easy hack to get your child to move more and balance screen time with analogue activities.
Bigger is better
The next bit is fascinating research that scientists in Japan recently published. They showed a direct correlation between reduced spontaneous sighs in users reading on small digital devices vs those reading from a piece of paper. The digital readers showed a significant increase in CO2; as you may or may not know, breathing and brain states are directly connected. Increased CO2, better known as carbon dioxide, affects anxiety and adrenaline levels as it triggers the fight or flight response.
In the study, the build-up of CO2 was mainly caused by the reduction in spontaneous sighs. Breathing during exposure on a small screen also becomes shallow and fast, building up anxious energy and affecting the users’ ability to comprehend what they read. The simple takeaway of this, for me at least, is to try and use the largest possible screen when consuming information on a digital device. Please pay attention to your child’s mental state as they engage with digital content. If you see them becoming angry or frustrated, ask them to close their eyes for 5 seconds and give a couple of big sighs – through the nose – flushing out some CO2.
*Contrary to general advice, you should refrain from “take a deep breath” when trying to calm down; instead, sigh (a double inhale followed by a prolonged exhale), exhaling as much CO2 as possible.
Lastly, a great little tip for calming your child is to get them to close their eyes whilst sighing because when we close our eyes, our brains switch to the alpha frequency. The technical stuff isn’t important right now but what the alpha brain frequency does is cause an inhibitory or inactive moment where the brain stops processing information for a short period of time -it’s partly to stop us from being aware of blinking. By asking your child to close their eyes, the frequency at which their brain resonates slows down, allowing their brain to take a breather from the super high-frequency gamma input beamed at them from both the content and flickering of the screens.
The screen debate will probably rage on for years to come, and we are learning more and more about how this incredible technological revolution will affect our children and us as time goes on. For me, the key is starting with our biology, especially our circadian rhythm, and finding a way to fit technology and screen time into it, not the other way around. If we don’t, we take a real risk of burning ourselves out and damaging the most important and miraculous technology of all, the wet, porridgy organ which came up with this technology in the first place, our brains.
In the next blog post, I’ll unpack the dangers of social media and micro-transactional games.
Sleep well bambooh Families.
About the author, Petré is currently undertaking his Masters in Science in Applied Neuroscience and King’s College London. If you have more questions or just want to share feedback please email us at email@example.com