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The Impact of Technology on a Growing Mind Leaves Me Terrified

Everything has age restrictions - driving, drinking, voting, and it’s all for a valid reason. Why do we disregard this when our kids ask for unfettered access to technology?

As published in The Evening Echo:


AI and ChatGPT are terms we have all become familiar with. The proposed purpose of AI is to make life significantly easier, but the universal truth of such things is that everything comes with a price tag.

What is the cost to our society, to our young people, when the answer to every question is accessible at the touch of a button, or even a voice command? What do we lose when we no longer need to think for ourselves?

As a college lecturer, it’s part of my job now to ensure our students don’t ‘cheat’ and use these tools to complete assignments. As a mental health practitioner, my experience has shown that such tools have a much more profound impact on one’s cognitive capabilities, emotional regulation capacity and problem solving skills.

And as a parent of two young girls, the knowledge and experience I have gained on the impact of technology on a growing mind has left me terrified - one day soon my daughters will ask for a smartphone and I will have to refuse and explain why. I don’t relish that conversation! Yet I can’t give in and hand them a phone when I know their minds are too young to cope with all it makes accessible, and ultimately, all it takes away.

We are the first generation of parents in history to guide our children through a digital age - and that comes with significant responsibility. Thankfully, this generation lives in a world where wellness and mental health support are readily spoken about and available. Let’s not allow one advancement to negate the other - as with all things, everything is achievable in a safe way with understanding and healthy boundaries, and the more we parents understand the impact of AI on our children’s developing brains, the easier this journey becomes.

The Child and Adolescent Brain

A child’s young brain is going through more developmental changes at puberty stage than it has done since birth. Chemical, hormonal and structural changes happen at an alarming rate. Emotional dysregulation is normal as neural pathways are being created according to the young person’s experiences in problem solving, and skills are being learned to help navigate their way through life. This is one of the most important stages in their lives in creating these skills.

Autonomy and confidence can only be learned through exposure to real world situations.

Trial and error are expected and cause a chain reaction of problem-solving in order to subsequently allow the opportunity to learn how to manoeuvre life’s challenges and prove important points to a young person about their own abilities.

Current norms have brought about the culture of over-scheduling our children; they are signed up for piano lessons, dance classes, camogie, football, swimming and all the skills we feel they need to learn and develop them into fine young adults.

Are we in fact disabling our children by not allowing them the opportunity to be bored, to free-play and learn strategies for regulation while being calm in the ‘nothing to do’? It has been much researched and agreed that over-scheduling our children leads them to a place of heightened anxiety later in life, as they engage in endless busy-ness they lose the ability to switch off.

So, in this age where technology is increasingly relied upon, and understanding young people’s neural development is paramount, the question must be asked - what parenting skills can be adopted to safeguard our children against smartphones and their many applications?

Mental Health Implications of Social Media

Snapchat recently launched an AI tool called My AI. This phenomenal technology is accessible through the app to all users and is designed to act as a ‘friend’ within the network. Its profile looks just like that of another user’s. At first glance, this could be construed as useful in the world of mental health, in that it could potentially stave off loneliness and add comfort to those at this vulnerable age of confusion and misunderstanding.

However, at closer inspection, this tool could potentially cause many dangers to those who are at a stage of disquiet and who are not developmentally mature enough to understand the implications of such a tool. TikTok, again with a minimum joining age of 13 years has an AI face filter. This filter can use one’s own profile or uploaded picture and instantly changes it to make it look like a flawless, even plastic surgery version of you.

In adolescence, our children’s bodies go through many changes that can cause a lot of concern and upheaval for them. It is supposed to be the age of ‘awkwardness’ where their body changes physically, and internally a lot of hormonal activity causes much consternation. Physiologically and psychologically this is supposed to happen.

However societal, and now digital, standards are telling our young people otherwise.

The world of social media promotes an ‘animated’ view of what it believes we ‘should’ look and feel like.

Creating such filters on an app that has 13+ year olds as its target group, is undeniably creating a generation of young people with body dysmorphia, potential disordered eating patterns, low self-esteem, and external validation emphasis as ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ determine how worthy or liked one feels in themselves. The digital culture is generating more anxiety in this population than has ever existed before.

The World Health Organisation has recognised the potential negative impact of digital technologies on mental health, particularly among adolescents. In a 2018 report on the state of adolescent health, it noted “there is evidence that the excessive use of digital technologies, including social media, by adolescents is associated with increased levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.”

The report cites a number of studies that have found a link between digital technology use and mental health issues. For example, one study found that adolescents who spent more than five hours a day on electronic devices were twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety than those who spent less than an hour a day on these devices. This is a cautionary statistic considering that the school day is now largely centred around the use of a screen/interactive whiteboard.

Behavioural Impact of Social Media

Exposure to social media, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, as young children, conditions the developing brain to acquire higher levels of dopamine (reward receptor) in order to gain satisfaction from experiences. The higher the hit, the higher one needs it to go to expand on the pleasure from the experience. Prolonged exposure to screens has been proven to affect concentration, focus and behaviours. It directly affects children’s ability to think and react rationally to triggers and thus causes behavioural and cognitive issues.

The prefrontal cortex (the part that employs rational reasoning to problem solving) in the developing brain is not as developed as an adults and therefore the young person is driven by their amygdala (emotional part). This is why taking away a phone (if they’ve been allowed one), or convincing our young person to come off of their device causes often severe emotional outburst or pushback.

To the brain, it has the same effect as a drug!

The Amygdala requires instant gratification which the digital world is all too eager to deliver. However, behaviourally and emotionally, the human brain is not wired to thrive on this. Delayed gratification promotes higher fulfilment and adds to a sense of achievement. It trains neural pathways a process in which it learns how to access a solution to a problem while thinking about what they are waiting for.

Think of the feeling you get when you force yourself to remember the answer to something you just know is in your brain, rather than google the answer. It is hugely satisfactory and stretches the ‘muscle’ that is the brains memory system. Simply, if we don’t use it we lose it.

The need for instant gratification leads to impatience, entitlement, lower problem solving skills, lower cognitive reasoning, higher emotional dysregulation and behavioural issues.

Societally, we have nearly accepted the fact children should have phones and as a mum of two young girls, I could not imagine not knowing where my children were or not being able to contact them as they grow older and want to do more things without me. We are hearing more and more from other parents that they are pressured to allow their children to have phones as other kids in their class or friend group have them. However, what happens if we all say no? What happens if having a smartphone in primary level children becomes the exception rather than the norm?

Our children may be sheltered from the infinite dangers that access to smartphones and their many applications allow them, our children may be allowed to hone their social skills, they may be allowed to switch off in the evening away from a difficult situation in school or amid their friend group, and their increased risk of developing anxiety disorders and depression later on may be reduced.

We as parents have the responsibility to educate both ourselves and our children to critically think about the things that we have such free access to each and every day.

Everything has age restrictions - driving, drinking, voting, and it’s all for a valid reason. Why do we disregard this when our kids ask for unfettered access to technology?

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