If you’ve ever dealt with a teenager throwing an epic tantrum, you’re not alone. But here’s something scary to consider: social media may actually be changing your child’s brain – leaving them with the mentality and emotional intelligence of a 3-year-old, according to a top brain scientist in Great Britain.
Baroness Susan Greenfield – a senior research fellow at Oxford University and leading scientist in the field of brain physiology – told the Telegraph she fears the instant gratification and constant stimulation associated with video games and social media is stunting young people’s ability to think independently, empathize with others and communicate effectively in the real world.
In other words, social media and other online distractions have taken the place of quiet introspection, which leads to healthy development.
“What I predict is that people are going to be like three-year-olds: emotional, risk-taking, poor social skills, weak self-identity and short attention spans,” Greenfield told the Telegraph.
Smartphone use among children and teens is at an all-time high, with a recent Pew Research survey revealing a whopping 95 percent of kids between the ages of 13 and 17 have access to a smartphone in 2018. That number has grown 22 percent since 2015.
Especially troubling – nearly half of these teens are spending most of their waking hours online. Forty-five percent of the teens surveyed reported using the internet “almost constantly.” That number has doubled in just three years.
Another 44 percent said they hopped online several times a day, while just 11 percent reported using the internet once daily or less.
That means 9 out of every 10 American teens are using the internet – including social media, gaming, text messaging and video chats – multiple times a day.
Greenfield also pointed to a 2014 study out of Princeton and Harvard, in which researchers discovered that students “typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more.”
The study asked college students to sit in an empty room without any of their belongings – including cell phones and computers – and were directed to entertain themselves using only their thoughts for 6 to 15 minutes. The rules were simple – stay in your seat and stay awake. When the time was up, they were asked to report whether they enjoyed the experience – most did not.
The researchers took it a step farther by providing the option of “negative stimulation” to one group in the form of electric shock. In short, students could sit quietly and think, or they could self administer electric shocks throughout the time period.
Sixty-seven percent of men and 25 percent of women indulged in the negative stimulation over no stimulation at all.
“Many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts,” researchers wrote. “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
Greenfield used the study as a reference when discussing the dangers of excessive tech use.
“People are now needing constant stimulation from their environment every single moment as suggested by that [Harvard] result,” she said. “They’re no longer able to go into their own mind, think laterally and have their own thoughts.”
So what can we do to keep our kids healthy and engaged? Turn to long-form activities like reading, sports, gardening that have a clear beginning, middle and end, Greenfield says. Take the instant gratification out of the equation, and teach them that the most rewarding things take time, dedication and hard work.
“Give them a box to play with rather than an X-box so they can use their imagination,” she told the Telegraph. “If you watch a child who is reading stories, you can see it gives them a better attention span… I have started to look at things they don’t do – that is promoting physical exercise, eating together and above all telling stories.”
Common Sense Media has this list of tips for parents on how to help a teen manage social media anxiety and addiction, and check out this WebSafety blog post to find a “Tech-free summer homework packet” for families.