The Next Page: This Is Your Brain on Screens
In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthly in the popular literature of our time.
One of the most interesting things, for me, about writing this column is the way I’ve become more aware of my own reading habits. I already knew about my preferences for YA literature and historical fiction, but I’ve noticed, too, that I read predominantly female writers and need to push myself a little to find new releases to generate material here. My non-fiction reading tends to be history (with Tudor England and colonial America as my favorite areas), but I make an exception for parenting books. My husband and I both hold doctoral degrees, so we tend to approach parenting as something one can learn more about through extensive reading. This practice felt desperate and (only through the vantage point of years’ distance) tragi-comical as we tried to figure out how to get our first-born, colicky daughter to sleep.It’s part of my Christian responsibility to be a wise steward of my time as well as my body.
Results are still mixed, and I feel generally wary of parenting expertise that is not combined with some other form of expertise. Though I wrote a Christ and Pop Culture column (“The Kiddy Pool”) for years, I am not a parenting expert; I’m still really not sure what that term means. My latest read, Victoria L. Dunckley’s Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time, fits the bill because the author is an M.D. and practicing psychiatrist. And, yes, the title is lengthy, though I’ve included it in full here because it so aptly describes the content and purpose of the text.
I come to this text as a parent of two small children (a six-year-old and a three-year-old), neither of whom gets all that much screen time. We watch movies, mostly borrowed from the library, but there is no television in the main living area of our home (it’s in the basement). Our touch-screen devices include a Kindle that hasn’t been used in months and an iPod that my husband and I use for running or long car trips. We own flip phones with no internet connection and laughable capacity for texting. I also come to this text as an educator, one who’s taught college-level English for the last thirteen years. I use technology in my classroom, but I also often find myself frustrated by students who are “digital natives” (more on them, here) intimidated by the inter-library loan form on the library website. Suffice it to say that I’m no Luddite, but I’m also not deeply invested in gadgets or cutting edge technologies.
Dunckley confirms many of my suspicions about the uses to which we put technology when she writes “[s]tudies show that reading is slower and that recall and comprehension is impaired when using an e-reader, suggesting that the brain doesn’t process the information as easily. Conversely, research suggests that the sensory feedback of a real book helps us incorporate information: the weight, texture, and pressure felt from holding a book; the cracking of its spine and flipping of its pages; the buildup of turned pages that provides a sense of how far along you are in the story—all reduce the cognitive load needed to absorb the information.” Dunckley’s concerns here, and throughout the text, is that the medium matters; in this example, the medium detracts from the message and stresses out the brain in the process, giving readers greater stimulation with lower comprehension. And, no, I didn’t read this book on my Kindle.
Further, Dunckley states that these findings ought to make us more cautious with screens in general, even those marketed as “educational.” She says “there is as yet no solid evidence that educational software enhances learning or brain development, while there is increasingly clear evidence that computer use may hamper both. Meanwhile, virtually all ‘positive’ research studies are industry funded.” It’s telling, though, that Steve Jobs restricted his own children’s use of the very technologies he helped pioneer. That’s not to say that the technologies aren’t brilliant, but that we must be wise in how we integrate them into our lives, particularly with children and young adults whose brains are still developing.
Dunckley offers an entire section in her book called “Lessons from Big Tobacco,” in which she asks “Are Big Tech companies really benevolent, really free of conflict of interest, when they ‘donate’ equipment and software in exchange for contracts to use their technology? With taxpayer dollars, no less?” Her framing here begs the question, but it’s still a powerful question with answers that can impact our lifestyles considerably. I couldn’t read this section without thinking of the vice club from Thank You for Smoking, and that recollection gave me a chuckle and a shudder. It doesn’t take much to persuade me that in a capitalist context we care more about company profits that children’s welfare or education. Economic issues notwithstanding, Dunckley’s claims destabilize much of children’s media culture, where LeapFrog products can dysregulate the brain as much as violent video games.
I admit that this book adds a neuroscience layer to my already-restrictive position on interactive screens, especially for kids. So there’s some level of confirmation bias, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that my biases, in this instance, are wrong. My experience as a parent and teacher show me that technology use in and of itself is insufficient to demonstrate content mastery or critical thinking. Or, as Dunckley puts it, “[s]tudies on rhesus monkeys have shown they can easily learn how to use a touchscreen or joystick to problem solve on a computer and dolphins and apes have been taught to use iPads.” That doesn’t mean they can create or conduct meaningful research, though, and I’d hate to see the same said of my children or my students.
Much of Dunckley’s book is devoted to an electronic fast to reverse the behavioral problems and chronic overstimulation of body and brain (not that they’re separate) from excessive screen time. That section was not particularly useful to me, as it’s not a problem for my family. She didn’t need to sell me on sleep hygiene. So I can’t say how useful or effective that portion of the book might be, but I think anyone invested in children and young adults should read and reflect on this book. Whether it changes our behaviors or not, it can make us more mindful and intentional of our choices and our relationships with technology.
It’s part of my Christian responsibility to be a wise steward of my time as well as my body, which is a living sacrifice to God. I’m also told to make all my thoughts captive to Christ. To think, then, that the technologies I use can have a profound effect on my brain (and thus the rest of my body, my emotions, etc.), is not just a matter of using a touch screen or not. It’s a spiritual issue. For my spiritual life to thrive, my mind needs to be healthy, andDunckley makes it clear that it’s not just about the messages I consume. The medium matters too.