The Seduction of the Screen

This blog is an interview with Kendra Wagner, who has devoted herself to helping ADD people succeed, especially in becoming better readers. This blog offers great insights into why ADDers have a penchant for the “screen,” and offers some great solutions on how to confront that.

How can we help ADD-ers become engaged with non-screen activities?
That is a long answer, and much of it ties in to the list of common-sense treatments for ADD that the experts have drawn up for us. We need to take care of our whole selves, we always hear. Screen time takes care of well, our need for retreat, and helps eye-hand coordination. Research shows little more than that for the positives. As ADD-ers we know we need train our brain to crave down time, to insert physical activity into our day, to take medication, supplements, or both. The “pull” of TV, movies, video games, online activities, and cell phones is especially strong for ADD-ers, because it is the novelty and newness factor is ever-present. You can switch channels in TV, fast forward in movies, switch levels in video games, and switch entire websites on the internet. Oh yes, and text several people at a time on phones. So for those of us who dread tedium or slower pacing, screens are very enticing.

What is a screen addiction?

A screen addiction is characterized by insatiability and also an inability to gauge your time spent online, or in front of a particular game or program. Screen addiction means that use of the screens are mood-altering and the addict is dependent on it—that they have an anxiety or identity crisis (no matter how small)when they try to stop using screens for a day or two.

How does screen addiction impact learning?
We take in a lot every moment through the eyes, more than more than a few decades ago, which is only part of how we learn. Kids in school in their average day take in a lot visually and auditorally but to really learn something we need more. Screens cannot take us there. Also, the rate in which kids in school process what is coming in needs to vary in pacing or rate.  Varied rates of processing are necessary because we are all individuals. Some kids need fast/slow/average pace, and some need all of that, with repeated exposure, depending on their own brain make-up, or the online pokies subject being learned.

Neurologically, how are we wired to learn?
The three ways we learn are:
Visual: through the eyes
Auditory: via the ears
Kinesthetic: through the skin, this includes touch, internal sensations, and hands-on experience.
As a culture we are not encouraging kinesthetic learning as much as we could be. A child who is watching the world of today sees people interacting with screens and concludes that is how to communicate, learn and to entertain oneself.

How do screens hijack the learning process?
Often screens with video games, TV shows, or movies, and many educational websites or software, have very fast moving images. The speed of the images does not mirror the pace that our human brains are wired to move or process. In the same way that pornography doesn’t mirror the natural pace of a relationship, video games do not mirror the natural pace of engaging with the world or learning something deeply. So then the child or adult addicted to screens grows to expect that pace to be how off screen life responds to them.

Children and teenagers can become frustrated with the steps and time required to develop mastery. They will ask “can’t I just go to another game?” when playing an educational game that requires mastering a subset of skills before moving on. In a video game you can always start over and often you are able to go to a level you are comfortable. There are even “cheat codes” that can be used to “fake” mastery.

Can you talk about frustration tolerance and screen addiction?
For adults, frustration tolerance is required for creating a personal change. For children, it’s required when learning a new social or academic skill. Frustration tolerance is a willingness to have small, micro failures or frustrations while keeping an end goal in mind. Kids and adults without long term gratification skills (AKA Frustration Tolerance) expect things to be instantaneous. They also lack “gray area” thinking and will assign rigid categories to themselves and others such as smart/dumb and then not want to keep going with effort once they have put themselves in these boxes.  I’ve noticed that my clients who have screen addictions don’t take real interpersonal risks.  Right, because in real life there is no “reset” button.

So what do you suggest?
We are in a world of screens so we don’t want to pretend they don’t exist. I suggest that parents have a good mix: provide an equivalent amount of face to face time that matches the screen time your children have. A four hour play date equals four hours of screen time, on the weekend. And I always suggest no video games during the school week. That honors the fact that school and homework are the child’s “job” and the weekend is their time off, so to speak. Also it is harder to get addicted when you have five days without it.

Research shows that kids learn best when screen exposure is short. An enormous part of learning, in both reading and in doing, from sports to medical school, involves making pictures in your head. Apraxia, an uncommon learning disability, and related disorders of language comprehension, is becoming more common because the part of the brain that creates images is “getting less exercise” in screen culture.

Visual processing (seeing and making sense of images) is different than generating (creating one’s own image based on imagination) processing. We know this from brain imaging research. So with screen over-use, that part of the brain is not going to the gym.

If we want to become an expert in anything or to feel we have a special skill, then we need to give our attention and a slower pace to that learning process. Screens are a tool in being a learner. They cannot substitute for mentors, concentrated time, or kinesthetic learning.

Kendra Wagner is a learning specialist in private practice in North Seattle, who primarily teaches children reading, writing, and thinking skills. She also consults in schools and advocates for children. Her specialty in ADD and Dyslexia grew out of her work in schools as a reading specialist and consultant, when she saw so many students being mislabeled, mistreated, and mis-instructed. She has a particular interest in how the brain develops, learns, and adapts to family and school environments.

It seems that for success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential. For success, the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simply practical, an ability to re-think a subject with originality so as to create in new, untrodden ways. -Dr. Hans Asperger

Autism has a lot to teach the world, but most of us don’t have any idea about the nature of the condition, outside of sound bites we hear on the news. The autism spectrum describes a wide array of symptoms. Some individuals “on the spectrum” are quite high functioning, while others have significant cognitive challenges. The main signs and symptoms of autism involve problems in the following areas :

• Communication – both verbal (spoken) and non-verbal (unspoken, such as pointing, eye contact, and smiling).
• Social – such as sharing emotions, understanding how others think and feel, and holding a conversation.
• Routines or repetitive behaviors (also called stereotyped behaviors) – such as repeating words or actions, obsessively following routines or schedules, and playing in repetitive ways.

A recent study, announced a few days ago, featured data about the screen preferences of children with autism spectrum disorders (ADSs). Given the above symptoms, it should come as no surprise that, when given the chance for screen time, children with ASDs choose television and video games over social and interactive media, such as e-mail, online chatting, and Facebook. This preference for socially-isolating screen time could interfere with children”s socialization and learning, researchers warned. The study appears online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

While socialization represents a key area of concern for parents of children with an ASD, today’s tendency toward cyber-mediated isolation should leave all parents worried. Autism is, as Dr. Asperger asserted, a predisposition to turn or stay away from the world. While I agree with him that this tendency does bring some great gifts, it also imparts significant liabilities. We have a population of young people that increasingly “relates” to others through cyber media, and we do not yet know the long-term consequences of this trend.

I continue to be concerned that our young people, not just those with ASDs, are undergoing a neuronal pruning. Like a gardener who fertilizes and stakes certain plants, while weeding out others, the brain is constantly building networks of synapses, while pruning out redundant or unneeded ones. I suspect this process is at work in our collective cerebral garden; the neural networks involved in social interaction are suffering. I worry that significant swaths of society are growing up without the tools they need to successfully navigate the complexities of human relationships. While folks with ASDs have a neurological challenge that makes social interaction difficult, many “neurotypical” people CHOOSE to isolate.

My fears for the future are rooted in a growing body of scientific research. A study done in the United Kingdom, for example, found that young males who spent several hours playing online, role-playing video games exhibited the same personality traits as people with Asperger”s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. The more time people spent playing these games, the researchers found, the more likely they were to show three specific traits usually associated with Asperger”s syndrome: neuroticism and a lack of extraversion and agreeableness. People with high levels of neuroticism have a propensity toward persistent negative states, such as anger, anxiety, and frustration. Low levels of extraversion and agreeableness correspond to a mindset that is unsuited to positive and mutually-beneficial interactions with others. The fact that excessive video games can produce these tendencies shows that they impact the brain, at least temporarily. What is unknown is whether or not this impact can become permanent over time.

Texting is another cyber medium that presents a potent craps challenge to young people. Research shows that conversation involves more than just words: 7 percent is the actual content of your message, 38 percent the tone of your voice, and 55 percent body language. Overly reliant on texting, today’s teens miss a good deal of conversational clues. Effective communication requires all three components; a text message automatically eliminates two of them. The result is miscommunication and a total breakdown of conversation, which will impact adult relationships, especially professional and romantic ones. The University of Calgary recently reported that texting also has a negative impact on people”s linguistic ability to interpret and accept words. While texting does involve lots of new abbreviations, it is a communication medium characterized by “rigid linguistic constraints.” Participants in the study who reported higher levels of texting had an associated lack of openness to new words, suggesting that the medium does not lend itself to expanding one’s vocabulary. It disturbs me to think that texting may well be limiting our competence with language and interpersonal communication.

Some would say that digital technologies have transformed our lives, while others would view them as agents of destruction. I see both the positive and negatives, but urge our society to take a more honest and circumspect look at the dark side. I began this discussion with autism because I see a parallel between the social challenges faced by people with ASDs and the self-imposed social isolation that is often the result of cyber media. I wish to underscore that ASDs are conditions rooted in neurobiology, and that video games, cell phones, and the Internet can isolate us so much that some of the same social challenges characteristic in ASDs are appearing with greater frequency in the general population. What worries me most is that we are changing the wiring of our brains, favoring neuronal networks that involve socially-isolating behaviors over those required for face-to-face interaction. Incidentally, I do actually agree with Dr. Asperger. I have known some incredible people with ASDs, one of whom is the architect of this website!