What a heavy Day 2 with Dr Warburton on the impact of screen media on the youth of today. I remember stumbling out of the conference room during the lunch break and staring out at the river for a bit, trying to understand what I had just heard.
There are a number of take-home messages about screen media. For me, the most important message is that media and platforms such as video games and social media are formulated to be behaviourally addictive and we should take care when using them. This is hard for me to hear as I come from family and social group who really embrace the culture of video games. Two years ago, when I went down to Melbourne for an industry conference, my husband went to PAX, a gaming convention created by my two favourite gaming industry commentators. I am very resistant to post anything critical about video games, but it would be unprofessional to ignore the part of the population who are engaged in problematic use of screens to the extent that their health wellbeing is affected.
If you’re always on your smartphone, that behaviour didn’t happen by accident. Children and adolescents are particularly susceptible as their pre-frontal cortex is still developing. This part of the brain helps them regulate emotions and make decisions, and is developed depending on how we are taught by our environment. Tasks that help us strengthen the prefrontal cortex include attention training tasks (like mindfulness), inhibition tasks (like not eating that second marshmallow), social communication (like deep conversations with our loves ones), and many more. The best place to do this is in the physical world which we inhabit, involving all our senses.
If a young person spends 6 hours in front of a screen for recreational purposes (this is the ‘average’ amount for adolescents today), the content they are accessing will impact how their brain develops. Prolonged early exposure to violence changes how a brain activates. These changes are reflected in the connection of our brain cells. This is not to say that we need to eradicate media from a young person’s life. These days, that would greatly impact their social functioning (‘everyone else is doing it’). The abstract of a chapter Dr Warburton wrote summarises it perfectly:
“Multi-billion-dollar industries such as advertising, Hollywood, television, educational media and training simulators all work on the basic premise that screen-based activities can change the way people think, feel and behave. Research shows that this is also the case for violent video games, which are linked to increased aggression, desensitisation to violence, hostile thoughts and feelings, and decreases in prosocial behaviour and empathy. The secret to managing video game play is aspiring to a healthy media diet: moderation in amount, preferential exposure to helpful content, and taking the age of the child into account.” – From Nurturing Young Minds in a Digital Age.
For guidelines on the age of the child, there’s some good information on RaisingChildren.net.au. In addition, I would like to add that screens are not parents. We need to be companions and supervisors for our children when they are in front of screens.
Interestingly, Dr Warburton gets many death threats from people about his video game research. If people in the video game community are trying to assert that video games do not increase aggression and hostility, this does not seem like a productive activity.