Tag Archives: cognitive development

Infographic on excess Internet use

Yep, there’s more on the “Internet changes your brain structure” issue. Check out the infographic on this blog–the author has looked into multiple studies that document that excessive Internet use affects the way the brain develops, and not always in a positive way. He linked to a few studies, like this one from Scientific American, that are investigating how continuous Internet use physically changes the brain. The conclusions reached are still inconclusive, though, and the debate still rages over whether constant Internet availability and the subsequent brain changes have net negative consequences.

There’s no doubt that we live in a more inter-connected age, and that information is flowing faster than ever. It’s been said, “getting information from the Internet is like trying to drink from a fire hydrant.” (Finding the original quote was interesting–the above link to the quote is the earliest I could find, from 2000.)  It may be inevitable that our brains will indeed wire themselves differently as it’s impossible to go back to a time without all that connectivity. I’m hoping for an ultimate “moderation in all things” type of response. I want the pendulum to swing back a bit and people to put down their electronic devices in order to more fully interact with one another in person. (The media could do its part by creating advertisements advocating a break from electronic data, but yeah, that’s not going to happen.)

Part of me wants to shake the collective world’s shoulders and entreat them to disconnect, just for a little while, once in a while. Part of me recognizes the futility of that dream. But I’ll continue to be a one-woman advocate for unplugging from time to time, if only to make sure that your significant other hasn’t been replaced by a robot. :o)

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Interactive screen time vs. TV

I have long been a proponent of kicking electronic devices out of the classroom, and I just found more evidence that interactive screen time (Internet surfing, social media use, texting, etc.) contributes to physical changes such as smaller brain size and cognitive malfunction. There are studies in respected medical journals that affirm those findings: they state that excessive screen time (or even just “regular” screen exposure) impairs brain structure and neurological function, with much of the damage occurring in the brain’s frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is where massive changes occur from puberty to young adulthood, and it “determines success in every area of life–from a sense of well-being to academic/career success to relationship skills.” (Psychology Today)

A study by Lin, Zhou, Lei, et al., summarizes it this way: “Taken together, [studies show] Internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.” Brain scan research findings include grey matter atrophy, compromised white matter integrity, reduced cortical thickness, impaired cognitive functioning, and cravings and impaired dopamine function. In other words, electronic device addiction is really bad for you, but especially so for those with young, developing brains. As a result, children are suffering from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper-aroused nervous system: what is called electronic screen syndrome.

So, screen time is making kids moody, crazy and lazy, and it’s changing the physical structure of their brains. What else is new? I see the effects every day in the teens I work with. I see the fractured attention spans, the apathy, the poor focus, and the often explosive and aggressive behavior. I see it in the lack of respect, both for their peers and for authority. I see it as they walk along in the hallways with their heads buried in their phones. It would be funny if it weren’t so serious.

What can be done to mitigate the effects of screen addiction? Another study I found states that all young people can benefit from a tech fast (from gaming, smartphones, laptops, iPads). This means no interactive screen time for a solid three to four weeks. Refraining from tech use can help to restore sleep patterns, enhance mood and increase relaxation, contribute to better focus, and improve relations in school/work, home life, and social interactions. Reconnecting with nature and green spaces can also lead to increased physical activity, perhaps helping reduce the high amount of obesity running rampant across the country.

The problem, as I see it, is getting parents on board with the idea of eliminating technology for any period of time. They are often the worst offenders in texting their children during class, leading to the assertion, “Well, I had to respond, it’s my mom!” Bollocks. Parents shouldn’t be contacting their children during the school day; if it’s an emergency, call the front office to inform the student between classes, just like the good ol’ days. (It seems the parents need the break from technology as much as their kids do.) But if parents can be made to see the light, giving kids a sustained break from technology can lead to many rewards.

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Why teaching cursive still matters

The gig is up — children should still be learning cursive in schools. According to an article written last June in the New York Times by Maria Konnikova, children that formed letters in their own handwriting vs. typing or tracing them show connections to broader educational development. In other words, “it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.” Studies are showing that children who write by hand learn to read faster, show an increased vocabulary, and retain what they learn better. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain,” says Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris. To me, it’s kind of like a body memory when you train for something over and over; in a stressful situation, your body knows how to react faster than your brain. By learning to write by hand, the brain is forced to recognize “messy” letters; being able to interpret all forms of an “a” for example, may increase the likelihood of recognizing the letter more quickly.

In free-form handwriting, the brain exhibited increased activity in three areas, an increase not seen in those who typed into a computer. But only the actual act of handwriting itself, not the observation of it, demonstrated increased brain activity. Children who produced text by hand generated more words more quickly, and they also produced more ideas in general. (James, 2012)

The benefits of handwriting extend to adulthood itself, as “not only do we learn letters better when we commit them to memory through writing, memory and learning ability in general may benefit.” (Berninger, 2006.) And things just keep getting better as we write our notes long-hand instead of typing them into a computer: “writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and re-frame it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.” (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2013.)

My own belief tends to uphold the opinion of these studies, that teaching cursive to children and making them take notes by hand produces both immediate and long-term benefits. I personally take notes much better by hand than by computer, and I usually write out all my papers longhand before typing them up. (Granted, I am a generation removed from easy access to electronic devices – I still prefer books over Kindles, I’m not attached by the hip to my phone, and I don’t need a constant blast of music in my ear from my iPod.) I was taught cursive from fourth grade to eighth grade (in a private Waldorf school in California); even my peers in public school were taught cursive. With today’s bipolar emphasis on standardized testing and yet producing creative, inventive individuals, teaching cursive can only provide a benefit to students both directly and with lasting positive effects.

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Effect of puzzle solving on student creativity

Apparently, kids really like solving puzzles. According to Istar Schweger, Ph.D., puzzles provide ways for students to build on emerging skills. And from Marcel Danesi, Ph.D. comes “The thinking involved in solving puzzles can be characterized as a blend of imaginative association and memory.” So I’ve started putting out jigsaw puzzles for my students to put together in the library. Some days I get big groups working on them, but most days it’s just a few that keep plugging away. Some days I get teachers drawn in to work on a particular section, or some of the admin staff will wander over to put in a piece or two. Solving jigsaw puzzles requires concentration, paying attention to patterns, and building on information stored in memory. Plus, there is something very satisfying about placing a piece next to its companion, watching a clear section emerge from the chaos of individual pieces. I like to think that I’m helping train students’ brains and helping them in ways of which they may not be aware. The biggest thing, though, is that I want them to have fun. There’s such pressure built in to every school day that a break now and again is nice.

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