A recent New York Times piece by Richard A. Friedman entitled "A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D."caught my eye this past week as I am right in the middle of writing a book chapter about how technology impacts people who have a range of psychiatric disorders. In particular, my co-author, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, and I are exploring how and why we react the way we do to interfering stimuli to create a "Distracted Mind." The article pointed out that as of 2011, according to the CDC, a staggering 11 percent of young people in America -- between the ages of 4 and 17 -- suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder making it the most common psychiatric illness in that age group and representing a 41 percent increase from only eight years prior in 2003. One specific passage seems very relevant and echoed some of my thoughts on the subject:
"I think another social factor that, in part, may be driving the "epidemic" of A.D.H.D. has gone unnoticed: the increasingly stark contrast between the regimented and demanding school environment and the highly stimulating digital world, where young people spend their time outside school. Digital life, with its vivid gaming and exciting social media, is a world of immediate gratification where practically any desire or fantasy can be realized in the blink of an eye. By comparison, school would seem even duller to a novelty-seeking kid living in the early 21st century than in previous decades, and the comparatively boring school environment might accentuate students' inattentive behavior, making their teachers more likely to see it and driving up the number of diagnoses."
I agree with Mr. Friedman that "digital life" is omnipresent in the home, the car, and, in fact, anywhere the child or teenager happens to be able to use a smartphone. Immediate gratification is most certainly one of the reasons for a child or a teenager not being able to pay attention in school and it is a powerful one. How can school, even when technology is added as part of the curriculum, ever compare to the lure of an action video game or constant connection afforded by a seemingly infinite electronic communication opportunities through texting, email, Skype, and, of course, social media sites?
However, I feel that there are other reasons that school students might fail to pay attention other than simply wanting a more engaging electronic environment and ultimately I feel that it comes down to how we parent our children. Due to my earlier books on the impact of technology on children, teens and young adults in the Net Generation and the iGeneration, I have been able to speak at dozens of schools around the world where parents all ask the same question: "What is the right amount of technology for my child?"
The answer is fairly straightforward and it is composed of four main parts:
- Technology time should not be all consuming. My guidelines are not as stringent as those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no screen time prior to the age of 2. Recognizing that parents need downtime and that technology can have educational benefits, I recommend that parents of young children set a rule of no more than 30 minutes of technology (and that includes television) at any one sitting which is to be followed by between three and five times that time doing non-technological activities that must include conversation -- necessary to learn the pragmatics of communication -- and free play time -- to allow the brain's Default Mode Network to take over and aid the child in developing creative thoughts and actions. So, if a child watches a half hour of Dora the Explorer then she should spend about 90 minutes or more playing with adults or other children and engaging in free play with a variety of toys and objects to allow for a future young adult who is able to communicate with others and possesses a creative mind.
I hope that these suggestions will help you keep your children healthy while allowing them to get the most out of their software and hardware while keeping their "humanware" intact.
The following published articles summarize the research on the role of technology in sleep disturbance among children and teenagers:
Lemola, S., Perkinson-Gloor, N., Brand, S., Dewald-Kaufmann, J. F., & Grob, A. (2014). Adolescents' Electronic Media Use at Night, Sleep Disturbance, and Depressive Symptoms in the Smartphone Age. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1-14.
Hale, L., & Guan, S. (2014). Screen time and sleep among school-aged children and adolescents: A systematic literature review. Sleep Medicine Reviews.
Adams, S. K., & Kisler, T. S. (2013). Sleep quality as a mediator between technology-related sleep quality, depression, and anxiety. CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(1), 25-30.