“The digital cretin factory.”
This is the title of the latest book by neuroscientist Michel Desmurget (Lyon, 1965), director of research at the National Institute of Health of France, in which he has hard and conclusive data how digital devices are seriously affecting, and for worse, the neural development of children and young people.
“There is simply no excuse for what we are doing to our children and how we are endangering their future and development,” the expert warns in an interview with BBC Mundo, who has behind him a vast scientific and popular work and has passed by renowned research centers such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or the University of California.
His book has become a gigantic bestseller in France.
Are today’s youth the first generation in history with a lower IQ than the last?
Yes. IQ is measured by a standard test. However it is not a “frozen” test, it is often revised.
My parents did not pass the same test as me, for example, but a group of people can be put through an old version of the test.
And by doing that, researchers have observed in many parts of the world that IQ increased from generation to generation. This was called the ‘Flynn effect’, in reference to the American psychologist who described this phenomenon.
But recently, this trend began to reverse in several countries.
It is true that the IQ is strongly affected by factors such as the health system, the school system, nutrition….
But if we take countries where socioeconomic factors have been fairly stable for decades, the ‘Flynn effect’ has started to wane.
In these countries, “digital natives” are the first children to have a lower IQ than their parents. It is a trend that has been documented in Norway, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, France, etc.
And what is causing this decrease in IQ?
Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to determine the specific role of each factor, including for example pollution (especially early exposure to pesticides) or exposure to screens.
What we know for sure is that even if a child’s screen time is not the only culprit, it has a significant effect on IQ.
Several studies have shown that when the use of television or video games increases, IQ and cognitive development decrease.
The main foundations of our intelligence are affected: language, concentration, memory, culture (defined as a body of knowledge that helps us organize and understand the world).
Ultimately, these impacts lead to a significant drop in academic performance.
And why does the use of digital devices cause all that?
The causes are also clearly identified: decrease in the quality and quantity of intrafamily interactions, which are fundamental for the development of language and emotional development; decrease in time devoted to other more enriching activities (homework, music, art, reading, etc.); sleep disruption, which is quantitatively shortened and qualitatively degraded; overstimulation of attention, leading to disorders of concentration, learning and impulsivity; Intellectual under-stimulation, which prevents the brain from unfolding its full potential; and an excessive sedentary lifestyle that, in addition to bodily development, influences brain maturation.
What exactly damage do screens do to the neurological system?
The brain is not a ‘stable’ organ. Its ‘final’ characteristics depend on experience.
The world in which we live, the challenges we face, modify both the structure and its functioning, and some regions of the brain specialize, some networks are created and strengthened, others are lost, some become thicker and others thinner.
Time spent in front of a screen for recreational reasons has been observed to delay anatomical and functional maturation of the brain within various cognitive networks related to language and attention.
It must be emphasized that not all activities feed the construction of the brain with the same efficiency.
What does it mean?
Activities related to school, intellectual work, reading, music, art, sports, etc. they have a much greater structuring and nourishing power to the brain than recreational screens.
But nothing lasts forever. The potential for brain plasticity is extreme during childhood and adolescence. Afterwards, it begins to fade. It doesn’t go away, but it becomes much less efficient.
The brain can be compared to a plasticine. At first, it is wet and easy to sculpt. But over time it becomes drier and much more difficult to mold.
The problem with recreational screens is that they alter the development of our children’s brain and impoverish it.
Are all screens equally harmful?
Nobody says that the “digital revolution” is bad and should be stopped. I myself spend a good part of my working day with digital tools. And when my daughter entered elementary school, I started teaching her how to use some office software and looking for information on the internet.
Should students be taught fundamental computer skills and tools? Clear. Likewise, can digital technology be a relevant tool in the pedagogical arsenal of teachers? Of course, if it is part of a structured educational project and if the use of a certain software effectively promotes transmission.
However, when a screen is placed in the hands of a child or adolescent, the most impoverishing recreational uses almost always prevail.
This includes, in order of importance: television, which remains the number one screen of all ages (movies, series, clips, etc.); then video games (mainly action and violent), and finally, around adolescence, a frenzy of useless self-exposure on social media.
How much time do children and young people usually spend in front of screens?
On average, nearly three hours a day for 2-year-olds, about five hours for 8-year-olds, and more than seven hours for teens.
This means that before reaching 18 years of age, our children will have spent the equivalent of 30 school years in front of recreational screens or, if you prefer, 16 years of full-time work!
It is simply insane and irresponsible.
How much time should children spend on recreational screens?
Involving children is important.
They need to be told that recreational screens damage the brain, impair sleep, interfere with language acquisition, weaken academic performance, impair concentration, increase the risk of obesity, etc.
Some studies have shown that it is easier for children and adolescents to follow the rules about screens when their reason for being is explained and discussed with them.
From there, the general idea is simple: at any age, the least is the best.
Beyond this general rule, more specific guidelines can be provided based on the child’s age. Before the age of 6, the ideal is not to have screens (which does not mean that from time to time you cannot watch cartoons with your children).
The earlier they are exposed, the greater the negative impacts and the risk of subsequent excessive consumption.
From 6 years of age, if the contents are adapted and sleep is maintained, it can go up to half an hour a day, even an hour, without an appreciable negative influence.
Other relevant rules: no screens in the morning before going to school, nothing at night before going to bed or when with other people. And, above all, no screens in the bedroom.
But it’s hard to tell our kids that screens are a problem when we, as parents, are constantly connected to our smartphones or game consoles.
Why are many parents unaware of the dangers of screens?
Because the information given to parents is partial and biased. The mainstream media is rife with unsubstantiated claims, misleading propaganda, and inaccurate information. The discrepancy between media content and scientific reality is often disturbing, if not infuriating.
I don’t mean to say that the media is dishonest: separating the wheat from the chaff is not easy, even for honest and conscientious journalists.
But not surprising. The digital industry generates billions of dollars in profits each year. And, obviously, children and adolescents are a very lucrative resource.
And for companies worth billions of dollars, it is easy to find complacent scientists, dedicated lobbyists and enthusiastic traders of doubts.
Let me give you an example.
Recently a psychologist, supposedly an expert in video games, explained in various media that these games had positive effects, that they should not be demonized, that not playing could even be a handicap for the future of a child, that the most violent games could have therapeutic actions and be able to quench anger in players, etc.
The problem is that none of the journalists who interviewed this “expert” mentioned that he worked for the video game industry. And this is just one example among the many that are described in my book.
This is not something new: it happened in the past with tobacco, global warming, pesticides, sugar, etc.
But I think there is room for hope. Over time, reality becomes increasingly difficult to deny.
There are studies that affirm, for example, that video games help to obtain better academic results …
Let me put it frankly: that’s sheer nonsense.
That idea is a true masterpiece of propaganda. It is mainly based on a few isolated studies with rotten data, which are published in secondary journals and are often contradicted.
In an interesting experimental investigation, game consoles were given to children who were doing well in school. After four months, they were found to spend more time playing games and less time doing homework. Their grades dropped about 5% (which is a lot in just four months!).
In another study, children had to learn a list of words. An hour later, some were allowed to play a car racing video game. Two hours later they went to bed.
The next morning, the children who did not play recalled about 80% of the lesson compared to 50% of the players.
The authors found that playing interfered with sleep and memorization.
How believe to bemembers of this digital generation when become adults?
I often hear that digital natives know “differently.” The idea is that although they show linguistic, attention and knowledge deficits, they are very good at “other things”.
The question lies in the definition of those “other things”.
Various studies indicate that, in contrast to common beliefs, they are not very good with computers.
A report from the European Union even explains that their low digital competence hinders the adoption of educational technologies in schools.
Other studies also indicate that they are not very efficient at processing and understanding the vast amount of information available on the internet.
So what is left? They are obviously good for using basic digital apps, buying products online, downloading music and movies, etc.
To me, these children resemble those described by Aldous Huxley in his famous dystopian novel Brave new world (“A happy world”, in Spanish): stunned by silly entertainment, deprived of language, unable to reflect on the world, but happy with their fate.
Are some countries beginning to legislate against the use of screens?
Yes, especially in Asia.
Taiwan, for example, considers excessive use of screens to be a form of child abuse and has passed a law that establishes heavy fines for parents who expose children under 24 months to any digital application and that do not limit screen time of boys between 2 and 18 years old.
In China, the authorities have taken drastic measures to regulate the consumption of video games by minors: children and adolescents can no longer play at night (between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.) or exceed 90 minutes of daily exposure during the night. week (180 minutes on weekends and school holidays).
Do you think it is good that there are laws that protect children from screens?
I don’t like prohibitions and I don’t want anyone to tell me how to raise my daughter.
However, it is clear that educational options can only be freely exercised when the information given to parents is honest and comprehensive.
I think a fair information campaign on the impact of screens on development with clear guidelines would be a good start: no screens for children up to 6 years and then no more than 30-60 minutes a day.
If this digital orgy, as you define it, doesn’t stop, what can we expect?
An increase in social inequalities and a progressive division of our society among a minority of children preserved from this “digital orgy” -the so-called Alphas of Huxley’s novel-, who will possess through culture and language all the necessary tools to think and reflect on the world, and a majority of children with limited cognitive and cultural tools -the so-called Gammas in Huxley’s novel-, unable to understand the world and act as enlightened citizens.
Alpha will attend expensive private schools with “real” human teachers.
The Gammas will go to virtual public schools with limited human support, where they will be fed a pseudo-language similar to Orwell’s “Newspeak” and will be taught the basic skills of mid- or low-level technicians (economic projections say that this type of jobs will be overrepresented in tomorrow’s workforce).
A sad world in which, as the sociologist Neil Postman said, they will have fun until death. A world in which, through constant and debilitating access to entertainment, they will learn to love their servitude. Sorry for not being more positive.
Perhaps (and I hope so) I am wrong. There is simply no excuse for what we are doing to our children and how we are endangering their future and development.
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