Is Technology Changing Our Kids' Brains?

Family Matters on 04.17.12
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Photo: Laura St. John

We all recognize how technology is changing our everyday lives: Instead of sorting through a heavy, outdated encyclopedia, I Google information I need. Instead of poking around for my torn-up atlas, I talk to my GPS as if it's human. And instead of never speaking again to that cool person I just sat next to last week on the airplane, she's now my Facebook friend.

Although I take most of these everyday uses in my life for granted, it made me wonder -- is technology changing our brains? And what about the brains of our kids? So I dug a little deeper -- with the help of technology, of course!

Playdoh Brain

Ok, so maybe playdoh is a slight exaggeration, but one cool fact I discovered is that our brains are moldable like plastic. In fancy science terms, this neuroplasticity means our brains can make  on-the-fly changes that represent the new knowledge we just acquired, either through instruction or experience. Recent brain research shows that brains of any age (yes, there's still hope) have the ability to constantly learn and make new connections. So the simple answer is "Yes!" -- technology is changing our brains -- because all new experiences change our brains.

3 Things to Watch Out For

Our kids' brains are in high gear as they go through the biggest brain growth spurt before the age of six years old. With this prime window of opportunity for learning it's no wonder that preschool has become the new college. Kids build their smarts when synapses in their brains fire off between neurons and form a new connection. The more they experience something -- like the good or bad ways they use technology -- the stronger these connections become. So the earliest experiences using technology are the most important time we need to step it up a few notches and make the most of it. Here are my top 3 things to watch out for so technology changes kids' brains for the better, not the worse!

1. Avoid Digital Candy.  First, don't just count minutes to plug and unplug, making technology a forbidden fruit. When you count minutes, and shut tech off when time's up, then you divide yourself from your kid (who sees you as a mean tech tyrant), set your kid up for a tech tantrum, and start an unnecessary power struggle. Even worse, by forcing your kids to unplug, you turn the technology into what I call "digital candy" -- a sweet reward that they get to have only when you say so. Remember, kids want what they can't have (and who doesn't?), so if you use technology like digital candy, you're going to hard-wire their brain to see technology as an interactive plaything, and not the important tool that it is.

2. Mush Brain. Second, don't only use technology passively, such as watching TV, DVD's, and YouTube videos. As I dug into research kids brains and technology, all the harmful effects (that unfortunately give technology a bad rap) occur when kids are just sitting there doing nothing with it. My family and I call it 'mush-brain' because after a while, their eyes glaze over as if their brains are turning to mush. My kids somehow picture their own brains turning into meatballs. Not very scientific, and kind of a gross visual, but definitely a kid-friendly way that they understand they better go do something more interactive, even if it still includes technology. On the flipside, when you wire kids' brains with interactive uses, they actually get smarter. But of course, that hardly ever makes the front-page news.

3. "She's-Already-Good-At-It" Mentality. Finally, just like you use technology to help make your everyday lives more efficient with the help of Google or a GPS, bring that same kind of experience to your kids. At the age your child shows an interest and starts using technology, don't just introduce her to playing games and apps. Most parents get a sense of "She's already good. She's better than I am." But playing being a pro at Angry Birds is not enough. When she has a question, show her how you can find the answer together online. When she wants to know how much longer to Grandma's house, let her track the GPS on your phone. When she wants to set up a playdate with her friend, help her find the letters to send a text or email to her friend's mom. And don't forget to teach her how to type at the same age she's learning her letters.

New tools and technology have always changed the way we live, work, and learn -- so our brains have been changing for a long, long time. If you travel back in time to the caveman era, we'd be teaching our kids the latest tools to make arrows out of rock. The only difference now is that our kids would be Googling, YouTubing, and Skyping with one another, sharing photos or live videos of their arrows with their new friend they just met last week on the airplane.

Laura St. John is co-creator of Discovery Kids Puterbugs, a program that wires kids to learn to  reach their potential by maximizing the powerful uses of today's technology. Classes for kids ages 3-8 years old are offered both online and in over 700 US locations through a network of entrepreneurs who bring the classes to their area. For more information on licensing the program, check out Laura's latest webinar, or register for the next webinar.


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