The past few months of COVID-19 lockdown have confined millions of children to their homes, staring at computer or tablet screens for hours each day while they learn and entertain themselves in ways which will have long-lasting consequences for their mental and physical health. It’s a disaster in the making, and we’re going to regret it.
According to the recent article, “Screen Time for Kids Rockets 500% Across the US During Coronavirus Pandemic”, in a recent poll by Parents Together, half of the 3000 parents polled said their children are now spending more than six hours a day staring at a screen, compared to only eight percent before the pandemic. Twenty-five percent of children are spending eight hours a day or more online, and thirty percent of children are spending at least four hours a day using the internet—without adult supervision.
That’s an awful lot of screen time, and parents are right to be worried—but are they worried about the right things? The article expresses parental concerns about addiction to social media, trolls, bullies, sexual predators, advertising directed at children and exploitation of children’s data. These are valid concerns, but should children—especially young children—be online at all? Should they even be using computers?
We already know that children who learn from books perform better in school than children who use tablets or computers*. Books are necessary for brain development, says Jessica Ewing, CEO of the children’s book club Literati, in the article “How Do Books Affect Your Child’s Brain?”
Ewing says, “The science we are seeing with screens and kid brains is quite frightening. The exact same organized white matter we see in brains of kids who are read to frequently (using fMRI brain scans) turns into chaos with screens and devices…The language centers of the brain are used to support success in school. Replacing books with screens may put your child at a massive educational disadvantage. At this point, screens are a huge risk we are taking with future generations.”
As a former teacher, I know that learning is a complicated issue. Each time we learn something, our brain makes neural connections and forges pathways in the brain. This begins very early in life, and the more physical and tactile stimuli exist to reinforce what we are learning, the better the chance that we will learn it well and remember it. The smell and feel of physical books, the text and illustrations, the sensations of forming letters and numbers on a page using a pen or pencil, are all essential to learning and memory, and essential to brain development. On a computer, all you do is press buttons. They’re all exactly alike, and the brain doesn’t develop different pathways for the “a” key or the “b” key. In the same way, reading requires the use of imagination to picture scenes, forging neural pathways, while watching TV or films online is purely a passive activity.
A school in Ireland, which had mandated that all parents provide their children with iPads to use in school, has been forced to give them up and go back to books because the children weren’t learning anything. Children stopped taking notes; instead they took screen shots of the whiteboard. And the iPads didn’t help children learn; instead they distracted them.
Two other bad things about screens are the blue light and the flicker they give off. Computer and device screens are lit by LED lights which flicker thousands of times a second. Your eyes don’t register this, but your brain does, and this invisible flicker causes eyestrain, blurred vision and headaches. LED light is also very blue, and this suppresses melatonin, which causes us to sleep badly and affects our health. Long-term, staring at a screen for hours a day damages the retinal cells and causes macular degeneration which can lead to blindness in later life.
Computers and tablets may be bad enough in themselves that we do not want children using them, even if children are not online. And if children are online, how many are using a safe wired connection? Very few, is my guess. When the whole family is locked down at home, and everyone is using a device of some sort for hours at a time, how many families have enough ethernet connections for everyone to be online at once? So they’re using Wi-Fi, which allows everyone to connect to the internet at the same time using one phone line. And Wi-Fi is especially bad for children, whose developing brains and bodies absorb much more radiation than any adult’s.
Professor Tom Butler, in “On the Clear Evidence of Risks to Children from Smartphone and Wi-Fi Radio Frequency Radiation”, points out that the health effects from exposure to this radiation is cumulative—the more exposure, the worse the effects. He cites a study showing that Wi-Fi affects brain development, learning and problem-solving in rats. A 2003 study, cited in “Is 5G Going to Kill Us All?” proved that modulated microwave frequencies killed brain cells in rats. Children are not rats, but the rat brain is very similar to the human brain. If computers hinder brain development in the first place, computers used online with Wi-Fi are much, much worse.
Too much computer use may be at least partly to blame for the growing number of young people—as young as their thirties—with early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dementias are starting to occur at least a decade earlier than they used to, and most cases are not genetically caused, according to the article “Why Are More Young Adults Developing Alzheimer’s and Dementia?”.
Neurodegenerative diseases, according to this article, are linked to environmental exposures including radiofrequency radiation (RFR) which may start very early in life—and even before birth. Butler points out that in-utero exposure to RFR increases asthma, obesity and ADHD in children. Many studies link RFR exposure to early-onset dementias because cellphone and Wi-Fi radiation can penetrate the blood-brain barrier.**
So what will the future bring for all these children who are spending hours and hours a day using computers and tablets, much of this time online, much of it spent using Wi-Fi? Are they really learning anything, or will the combination of computer time, blue light and Wi-Fi exposure leave them addicted, brain-damaged, blind, unhealthy and prone to early dementia? It’s a very real concern. Perhaps it’s time to bring out the books?
*See my earlier post, “So Much for the Digital Divide”
** See my earlier post, “Going Ga-ga”