Grace Christian School

Headmaster's Blog

Technology and the Brain - Part 4

June 28, 2017
By Brian Fitzgerald
Technology and Education: Effects of Screen-Time


Last week, I introduced some of Dr. Dunckley’s research concerning the physiological effects of electronic screen time. This week, we will take a look at two specific areas of concern: the eyes and brain. I also want to pass along two pieces of practical advice for the consideration of our parents as you work through how to approach technology in your home.

Electronic screen-time should make us hesitate, if for no other reason, because of its direct contact with our eyes and brain. After observing that “the eyes are the only part of the central nervous system exposed to the outside world,” Dunckley discusses three “eye-related ‘routes’ that can be accessed”:

First, because electronic screens emit unnaturally bright light, they convey information to the brain that’s inconsistent with what’s occurring in the real world, desynchronizing the body clock and other biological rhythms. Second, interacting with a 2D screen alters normal eye muscle movements, including those used for changes in depth. This influences visual and vestibular (relating to sense of balance and body position) development, cognition, and mood regulation. Third, electronic media provides intense, unnatural, ‘arresting’ visual stimulation that affects sensory and attention processes. This is true no matter what the specific content is. Thus, screen devices affect your child through his or her eyes by light, muscle movement signals, and visual stimulation. [emphasis mine]

The blue light exposure of screens also affects the brain’s regulation of chemicals such as dopamine (the “feel good” hormone), melatonin (the sleep signal hormone), and cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”). Therefore, screen-time can set off a wide, interconnected, and complex range of physiological and emotional complications: disruption of the body clock, blood flow shifts, elevated cortisol (which affects the body’s ability to handle stress), oxidative stress (which damages developing brains), disturbed sleep, cognitive dysfunction, poor sense of time, impaired social interactions, and mood dysregulation.

In other words, exposure to electronic screens sets off a range of physiological effects which are not in line with the reality around us. The body thinks it’s daytime when it should be sleeping. It becomes used to a high level of dopamine which is difficult to maintain in any number of life-scenarios (including the classroom or a Sunday sermon!). The body is unable to handle stress appropriately. The effects of too much screen time go on and on, and these effects make it difficult to live in the reality around us. And we are only considering the physiological effects, which inevitably domino into psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual issues.

As a school, we want to be sensitive to these issues and act appropriately in response to them, but good technology habits for students begin in the home. There’s a lot of great advice out there about healthy digital habits, and Dr. Dunckley offers an entire chapter in her book to this very thing after she walks her readers through a four-week “reset” plan. She entitles chapter ten “Everyday House Rules and Protective Practices,” and she offers incredibly practical advice which any parent would find helpful. I would like to pass along just two suggestions from this chapter. First, download the free software application f.lux on your computer. This application filters blue light (which disrupts the body clock) during the evening hours. Students working on papers at night will greatly benefit from this application. Second, consider buying a pair of blue filter glasses for use while watching television or playing games on electronic screens. Moderation is the best rule, but at night, blue filters (like f.lux and the glasses) are a great way to protect yourself from the some of the physiological effects of screens.

Next week, we will conclude looking at Dr. Dunckley’s research and answer the question “How much screen-time is too much screen-time?”

If you would like to respond to this blog, please email Brian Fitzgerald at grace@gcswarriors.org.

Technology and the Brain - Part 3

June 21, 2017
By Brian Fitzgerald

Technology and Education: Effects of Screen-Time

As we consider a healthy approach to school-related technology use, it’s important to consider the findings of the medical community as they continue to discover the physiological effects of electronic screens. We do not base our technology philosophy on the research of one person or that person’s perspective, but integrative psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckley has written a thoroughly researched book entitled 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. This book represents and condenses much of the research in this area. Therefore, a consideration of her research helps narrow our consideration of the effects of technology and screen-time.

Dr. Dunckley sounds the alarm about the physiological consequences of screen-time on our bodies by exposing what she calls “the inconvenient truth about electronic screen media.” What is this truth? She states, “The truth is, research suggests that all screen activities provide unnatural simulation to the nervous system and can cause adverse effects.” In other words, exposure to electronic screens, irrespective of content, has detrimental physiological effects on our bodies. Content obviously does matter – for example, violence and pornography also negatively affect our bodies, brains, development, etc. – but what is often overlooked is that the medium itself (screens) is physiologically damaging. Therefore, even innocent or educational content does damage when screens are involved.

When we consider the effects of technology on our well-being, we tend to focus on concerns with inappropriate content, all the while overlooking the fact that screens themselves present their own set of issues. We also tend to assume that if the content is interactive, then we are engaging our brains and benefiting from it. However, Dunckley says:

Many of the families I work with already limit passive screen-time (such as television) but not interactive. This is because we associate passive viewing with inactivity, apathy, and laziness. In fact, parents are often encouraged to provide interactive screen-time (particularly in favor of passive screen-time), with the rationale that surely this type of activity engages the child’s brain. Children are forced to think and puzzle rather than just watch, so it must be better, right? But interaction is in and of itself one of the major factors that contributes to hyperarousal, so sooner or later, any potential benefit of interactivity is overridden by stress-related reactions. Furthermore, interactivity is what keeps the user engaged by providing a sense of control, choices, and immediate gratification, but unfortunately these attributes are the same ones that activate reward circuits and lead to prolonged, compulsive, and even additive use. [emphasis mine]

A young student might be learning math facts through an online platform or digitally dissecting a virtual fetal pig, but the medium reinforces things in the student that can become compulsive or addictive. The medium is a problem regardless of content, and the problem is prevalent enough that Dunckley identifies it as Electronic Screen Syndrome (ESS). “ESS is essentially a disorder of dysregulation” that interferes with and disorganizes various biological systems.

Next week, we’ll continue looking at some of Dr. Dunckley’s research concerning the physiological effects of electronic screens on our eyes and brains. I will also provide two suggestions to help minimize these effects at home and in your own use of technology.

If you would like to respond to this blog, please email Brian Fitzgerald at grace@gcswarriors.org.

 

Technology and the Brain - Part 2

June 13, 2017
By Brian Fitzgerald

Technology and Education: An Introduction

In John Morrison’s introduction last week for this series of blogs, he emphasized that research from the medical community is finding a disturbing impact the digital screen is having upon our physiological well being. Young children and teens are especially vulnerable to these physiological effects. Based on this emerging research, we realize that the digital screen, while it has an important place in the classroom, may be causing more harm than good as it is being used extensively in many schools and in the home. Please click here to read more about this important research and how we are making adjustments accordingly in our educational use of technology at Grace Christian School.

We live in a world dependent on technology, and that world is rapidly changing as the technology becomes more advanced and intuitive. Education and school systems were inevitably swept up in the technology rush, but the time has come to pause and evaluate the effects of technology and ask the should question, even if the can is firmly established. Can we incorporate technology into the classroom? Absolutely! But “to what extent should we?” is a different and more critical question. It is important for our school’s technology philosophy to take into account the effects of technology on our students, while also acknowledging and accommodating the fact that we live in a digital age in which our students have to learn healthy digital habits and be proficient in basic technology skills. We will not strike this balance perfectly, but we certainly strive to help our students navigate the complexities of technology with wisdom and moderation. What follows in this blog series is an attempt to demonstrate why we do not fully embrace the use of technology as a primary means of educating in the classroom, and also to lay a vision for a limited, intentional, and selective use of technology in order to help provide our students healthy digital boundaries and the best education we can offer them.

The health and welfare of our students is the top priority of our technology philosophy. As an educational institution, our school would not be serving its families and students well by insisting that constant use of technology and excessive screen-time in the classroom be the educational norm. The growing findings of the medical community raise serious concerns about the effects of technology and screen-time on the human brain, body, and general health. Our school takes those concerns seriously because we are interested in the wholistic health of our students – mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Therefore, our teaching methods and tools should enhance their learning without harming them in the process. Using safe teaching tools and methods sounds obvious, but screen-related technology is not as safe as many assume. We therefore approach its use in the classroom in a limited, intentional, and selective manner.

Next week, we will begin looking at research integrative psychiatrist Victoria L. Dunckely has done on the physiological effects of electronic screens on our brains and bodies. This research should help us think through how to navigate our use of technology, both as a school and in our personal interaction with digital screens.

If you would like to respond to this blog, please email Brian Fitzgerald at grace@gcswarriors.org.

 

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