How Boredom Builds Brains … and Screens Can Drain Brains!

We do not have the longitudinal research to know exactly what effect the new generation of handheld devices may have on our children's brain development.

A rhythm of consistency and predictability in everyday life supports a young child’s healthiest brain development. For one thing, it fosters their most robust capacity for self-regulation — a fundamental aspect of lifelong mental health, emotional wellbeing and all-around success.

Your child’s self-regulation system needs to be worked and practiced to fully develop. This calls for some interludes of <gasp> boredom, which are essential for the fully articulated wiring of the brain circuitry responsible for her future capacities to manage and balance her emotional states — stress, boredom, pleasure, and a basic sense of being connected to Life. This serves as a significant protective factor against high-risk behaviors not too many years from now, which are ways of attempting to manage such emotions from the outside in.

Defaulting to Devices

Just the other day I was shopping at Home Goods and witnessed a distressing scene: a young girl, maybe six, was staring down at a handheld device while her mother was literally steering her around by the shoulders!

It is a dangerously slippery slope getting our children in the habit of distracting themselves away from boredom (or distress or irritation or fear or whatever state it may be) via a handheld device. We thwart the healthy development of their self-regulation brain structures when we let screens become their go-to, whether it’s an iPad, iPhone, MobiGo, Leap-Frog or (ah, the olden days) even an old-school Gameboy-esque videogame. (At this point I will self-disclose here that we pretty much had to do an intervention with our son Ian when he was around ten, to redirect his enthusiasm for Gameboy toward more constructive activities.)

It seems so quaint and so recent — indeed, I wrote about it in my book of just two years ago! — that my big concern was the new rage of DVD players embedded in the backs of car seats, to keep kids entertained (and quiet). How did I not foresee the handheld device revolution and an exponential expansion of my concern for this young generation’s capacities to self-regulate?

Engaging with the World Around Them

Here’s the thing: car rides — like visits to Home Goods — come with many naturally occurring sensory stimuli as standard equipment: everything passing by outside the windows, not to mention the conversation inside, with actual <gasp> people. If we distract and essentially hypnotize a child away from possible boredom (the dirtiest word in our current parenting culture) by plugging her into video entertainment, we deprive her of a regularly-occurring, ideal opportunity to practice the important developmental task of learning to soothe and regulate her own fluctuating internal states of attention, interest, distress, etc. This has serious implications for her lifelong wellbeing and success in everything from academics to relationships!

Humans are biologically designed to be in physical proximity to one another as a way of mutually regulating our inner physical and emotional states. But 21st-century technologies seem intent upon prying us apart with the allure of awesome gadgets that are, ironically, designed and perceived as “connecting” tools.

Social Intelligence author Daniel Goleman cautions, “This inexorable technocreep is so insidious that no one has yet calculated its social and emotional costs.” (It bears noting that Steve Jobs strictly limited his own kids’ use of screens, and many employees of tech giants Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard send their children to Waldorf schools, which are technology-free.)

Gambling With Their Brains

The brain regions meant to be engaged and bustling with activity for optimally healthy psychosocial development, essentially go to sleep when a child watches TV. This is likely also the case with many forms of screened content, regardless of how “interactive” or “educational” it is purported to be.

We simply do not have the longitudinal research to know exactly what effect the new generation of handheld devices may have on our children’s developing brains. So we do our best to extrapolate using existing science, common sense and — given my druthers — an “err on the side of caution” approach. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Studies have found that people become more depressed and lonely the more time they spend “interacting with others” online.
  • Gamma is the highest frequency brainwave, associated with perception and higher brain activity, which is present when the child is actively engaged in listening to or telling a story, drawing or playing. Scans show gamma brainwave activity drops to a virtual flat-line while a child watches television.
  • Screens are a highly unnatural activity for the young child. Sitting motionless for thirty, sixty, ninety minutes at a time, watching the flicker of electronic signals play across a backlit screen, was never part of Nature’s plan for the unfolding of social or cognitive intelligence. Rich neural connections in the child’s social brain are fostered through human interactions and imagination-igniting engagement with three-dimensional elements of the real world.
  • Occupational therapist Cris Rowan concisely details ten reasons for concern about handheld devices, including the obesity epidemic, mental illness, aggression, sleep deprivation, addiction, radiation and what she terms “digital dementia” — “high speed media content causes attention deficit, as well as decreased concentration and memory, due to the brain pruning neuronal tracks to the frontal cortex.”

Healthier Alternatives to Screens

So are you cursing at me by now? Are you wondering what home-front Armageddon would be unleashed if you were to curb or even eliminate your child’s use of screened devices?

I mean, really, what’s a mom or dad to do, at the end of a trying day, when everyone’s tired and all they want is a few free minutes to prepare dinner without juggling junior at the same time? Before resorting to the digital babysitter, try:

  • a sink of soapy water and unbreakable items for him to wash
  • a floor-sized puzzle
  • bubbles
  • a basketful of a few treasured items she enjoys that only appear at this time of day
  • ditto a sand tray
  • ditto a pot of clay or play dough and cookie cutters
  • a clothesline with kitchen towels clipped to it to make a peek-a-boo fort
  • a solo game of Twister he plays with your rousing encouragement
  • giving her a heavy piece of moistened art paper with two harmoniously matching colors of gouache and a thick paint brush and letting her go to town

I sometimes suggest parents in my practice consider introducing their young children to the joys of audio stories and music. If you begin early with the notion that these are a special treat, you will have a win-win resource for your family: audio stories (such as the treasures my kids used to listen to from Rabbit Ears Radio) or a child’s favorite CD of songs can hold a child rapt for the twenty or thirty minutes of solitude you might crave, while still engaging her active imagination as she sings or dances along, or envisions the scenes in the tales — maybe even drawing or acting them out with her dolls or wooden figures. These are also a boon for long car trips… instead of playing those seat-back DVD players!

Please keep in mind that this is NOT about feeling guilty — it’s about reconsidering our choices once we have more information! Any of the above ideas spark your imagination?

Published on: January 28, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Marcy Axness
Marcy Axness, PhD, is an early development specialist, parent coach, and author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers. She believes we need to raise a generation who are "hardwired" with the brain-based capacities of peacemakers. Marcy is offering Dr. Greene's readers a free copy of her "7-Step Guide: Helping Your Child Release Stuck Behaviors eBooklet, a unique, powerful tool for parents to use with children of all ages
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