A nationally recognized expert on the effects of screen time on the developing brain is in The Dalles for a free talk Monday, March 18, kicking off a four-part series of talks hosted by YouthThink.

Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, from Seattle Children’s Hospital, will be speaking from 6 to 8 p.m. at The Dalles Middle School.

“We’re definitely starting with the best act because he was just on ‘60 Minutes,’” said Debby Jones, coordinator of YouthThink, which focuses on building resilient, healthy youth.

“I can’t believe we’re getting Dr. Christakis. I believe it was something that was supposed to happen,” she said. “I called at the exact perfect time because he was expecting a call from someone else,” so he picked up the phone.

He wants to include a positive message of prevention, along with the sobering evidence of what screen time does to the brain. “It’s not going to be a presentation that’s anti-screen,” she said. “If we know how to use them we can get the full benefit.”

He will present the latest research on what screen time is doing to the developing brain in the first five years of life, she said. He will talk about when and how often to use it, she said. He encourages more one-on-one time, with the phrase “laps, not apps.”

Other programs later in the four-part series will be on child sex trafficking on April 3, on protecting kids from pornography on May 7, and the struggles of student athletes, in June.

Christakis will speak about how popular platforms like Snapchat and Instagram are designed to keep users interacting repeatedly with the social networking service.

For instance, if someone posts a selfie, their followers could be quickly hitting the “like” button, but the technology companies set it up to release “likes” over time, so the users will frequently go back to check how many “likes” they’ve accumulated.

It’s helpful in that it can make people feel connected, Jones said, but “we’re just a pawn in another industry.” They use what is known about the brain to benefit their bottom line, she explained.

Snapchat has what are called “streaks,” or consecutive days of chatting with another person. “You’ve got to keep your streaks. You’ve got kids that are managing 20-30 streaks,” she said. Some kids will even pay someone to keep up their streaks if they can’t.

That’s how kids feel attached, she said, and meanwhile, the attachment to people in their life isn’t as strong, “because parents are doing the same thing,” in terms of excessive screen time.

Linda Griswold of YouthThink said one sobering study showed how children were given a computer game of assembling Lego models, which they quickly became proficient at, but the skill did not translate to the real world.

Another study found that kids too young to sit up by themselves already knew the swiping motion of using a tablet or phone.

Screen time can also affect sleep, since the light screens emit puts the brain on high alert, preventing needed rest. “You can imagine the behavior effects that can happen from that,” Jones said.

The addictive quality of screen time shows that it’s not just drugs that are a concern. The brains of people who are heavily into gaming look like they’ve had a concussion, Jones said, and their brains are always on high alert.

The reward centers of heavy screen users and cocaine addicts are the same, she said.

Electronic Screen Syndrome is now listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

With growing evidence about screen time, “We’re understanding why we do what we do and so much of it is our own brain biology; and how do we learn about that so we’re in control and we’re helping our children be in control so we’re a resilient generation,” Jones said.

Jones said post-millennials have been raised on smart phones, and some of what all that screen time has done is positive. Teen pregnancy rates are down, but it’s because kids aren’t going out. Meanwhile, behavioral issues are going up.

And when kids see glowing posts from other people, “There’s this false narrative that everybody’s life is perfect but theirs.”

It also makes exclusion painfully and publicly obvious. “Why wasn’t I invited to that party?” a child will ask.

Screen time also denies a child of the experiences of appropriate touch, talk and eye contact that lead to secure attachments with others. “The brain needs those,” Jones said.

“You can look up everything on Google, but empathy is going down worldwide,” she said.

YouthThink strives to provide emotional literacy and secure attachment as a way to build resiliency and ultimately reduce risky behavior and substance abuse.

When resiliency is absent, youth turn to self-medicating with drugs or risky behavior, since they are powerful ways to shut down the feeling brain temporarily, Jones said.

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