Ipads, brains, and bad Influences

Remember when television was supposed to rot our brains? Before that, reading the noir detective novels of James L. Cain was believed to corrupt young minds and lead to moral depravity. Even Socrates–2,500 years ago–bemoaned the spread of written language, claiming it would impede our memories. In modern times, it’s our obsession with our devices that threatens to stymie our brains. But is this true?


While the finger-pointing started as soon as the TV was turned on, it wasn’t until 2013 that Tohoku University in Japan put some science behind TV watching and brain rotting. They imaged the brains of 290 TV-loving children and found that heavy TV viewing bulked up the brain’s hypothalamus, septum, sensorimotor area and visual cortex. These areas affect emotional responses, arousal, aggression and vision, respectively. Their tests concluded that verbal IQ scores fell in proportion to the hours of TV watched. Was Socrates right?

But wait, there’s more. Recently the TV Brain Rot theory has been challenged. New research from the University of Nebraska Omaha and Florida State University point towards heredity as a likely suspect in the derailing of our youth. It seems that people who are inclined to be obese or uncoordinated tend to gravitate towards TV and other forms of visual stimulation.

It’s fair to believe that the same thinking would apply to spending too much time in front of all screens including the phone and tablet, and the good old fashioned boob tube. The stereotype of heavy gamers and natural introverts being heavy users of device-driven content seems to support the genetic disposition theory–at least for the pre-tablet days.

Something different happened when the iPad came around six years ago. Instead of the status quo bemoaning yet another brain-deteriorating device, the glow of the iPad pixels was seen immediately as real hope. With the swipe of a finger, American childhood has undergone a transformation. Thousands of kids’ apps have been developed—the majority aimed at preschoolers.

The device craze has changed the way we communicate, the way we learn and even the way we walk down the street. Our children are born digital, and this has started the finger wagging: “But not too digital”. The new devices and apps are all well and good as long as they help kids conjugate their verbs. But isn’t it a threat to our children’s brains? Won’t they end up as a generation of mopey, pasty creatures who can’t make eye contact and have an avatar for a mate?

Marketers are working hard to calm our fears. The claims of ‘educational’ and ‘e-learning’ are plastered on packages just like ‘gluten-free’ and ‘whole grain’ on cereal boxes. None of it is backed by scientific evidence. Because we really don’t understand how the brain will be impacted.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended zero screen time for children under the age of two, and a two-hour daily limit for older kids. That implies that all of the fears might be true. However, those recommendations are being revised with a new report coming out this year. A few insights into what they will report include the definition of passive versus interactive viewing. It is expected that the tablets and mobile apps that provide some form of activity and engagement will be OK. The danger will be that too much stimulus and the rush of winning reinforced in colorful screen pops will affect the brain. Of course passively watching TV or videos on any device will still pump up your hypothalamus–and we all know what that means.

The key to mobile consumption being fuel instead of junk food is in the hands of the children. Many well-defined online programs go way beyond learning apps. Underserved genius kids from around the globe are recruited to https://brilliant.org where they answer a series of math and science problems to be discovered. The decades old, well-endowed, Games for Change http://www.gamesforchange.org posts browser-based video games that model the world’s biggest problems and allow gamers to work out solutions. There are countless start-ups devoted to providing truly game-changing device-driven tools. Never before has the level of focus been so squarely on interactivity in learning.

Pulp novels. Comic books. Radio. TV. Video games. All were condemned as a threat to the next generation. Last I checked, these once-new ways of seeing the world did not wreck our eyesight, make us violent or lure kids into wasting time that would otherwise be spent understanding how presidential politics work.

There are geniuses with their hands all over those touch screens. Let’s give them more cool stuff to play with so they can create something to shock the next generation.