Who here is working, raising, or perhaps trying to tame a screenager?
Not a teenager or a threenager, screenagers are kids that learn to tap, swipe and pinch before they've learnt to ride a bike, grip a pencil or tie their shoelaces. These are kids that have never known the agony of waiting for their roll of Kodak film to develop. Do you remember the days spent nervously waiting for the chemist, talk about delayed gratification! And these are kids and teens that have never known what it's like for the internet to dial up. In fact, today's screenagers, the research is telling us, are spending more time with pixels than with people. And in a recent survey, we asked young people, upper primary and lower secondary students: would they rather have a broken bone or a broken phone? And I can tell by your response you know what the majority of the survey respondents said.
Whether we love it or loathe it, our children, our adolescents and our young people will inherit a digital future. So digital abstinence is not the solution. Banning screens, suggesting that they're toxic or taboo, is no longer an option either. What we have to do as parents, as professionals and as educators and as young people in this space, is to tame their technology habits so that they are masters of the media and not a slave to their screen.
We need to teach our kids and our young people today how they can be in control of technology and not the other way around, where technology controls them. Where they start to salivate like Pavlov's dogs every time they get an alert or notification on their phone. So one of the issues that makes this particularly difficult is because the very way that technology has been designed. It may come as a surprise to you to learn that many of our big social media companies, when they were developing their online tools were not only employing tech recruits, but they were also employing psychologists and neuroscientists to make sure that the technology appealed to our psychological vulnerabilities. And one of our basic psychological vulnerabilities as human beings whether we're a teenager, a young person or even an adult, is what we call "bad forecasting."
When we jump into our social media feeds or perhaps we get an alert telling us that we've had a photo of us tagged in it, what we actually think will take us five minutes, can very quickly become the rabbithole, so I'm suggesting that instead of having alerts that look like this, we should perhaps have alerts that look like this. Much more realistic indicator as to how much time we are going to dedicate to social media. And this is one of the many psychological vulnerabilities that social media taps into, and that is our incapacity to accurately forecast, and it also explains - and I'm going to talk about this in a moment - something called "the state of insufficiency."
So this evening I want to talk about why, whether we're talking about young people or even ourselves as adults with fully developed brain architecture, why we have succumbed to the screen. Why is it that we are digitally dependent on our devices. And then I'm going to speak specifically about the young brain. The teenager and young person's brain and why they are particularly vulnerable to some of the potential pitfalls associated with social media. And then I'm going to provide you with practical solutions about how we can tame our tech habits, in terms of establishing healthy boundaries and also about fostering healthy habits. Because as I said, digital amputation isn't the solution.
So in this video, we often decry that teenagers have become dependent on their devices, but I want to ask you as adults in the room, who here is also dependent on their devices? Are you perhaps one of the 58% of women who said that they would rather give up sex than their mobile phone for the space of a week? Are you, as Louise pointed out, one of the many people that reach for their phone before their partner first thing in the morning? And please don’t answer when I ask you are you one of the people that are checking their social media in the bathroom?
As adults, with fully developed brain architecture, we are tethered to our devices, I can tell by some of the smirks and laughs you're not immune either. I'm often asked, is technology really rewiring our kids' and teens' brains? And I'm here to say as a researcher in this field, in some regards we are conducting a bit of a living experiment. We don't have longitudinal data to tell us what the long term impacts are. The iPad only recently celebrated in April this year, it's 8th birthday. In 8 years, we have, as a society, veraciously adopted it. So I want to ask you as adults with fully developed brains, do you suffer from nomophobia? Fear of not having your phone. Would you travel home in Sydney's horrendous traffic to retrieve your digital appendage that you left charging near the bed or somewhere on the kitchen counter? Now if you don't suffer from nomophobia, maybe you suffer from phantom vibration syndrome. Now you have a label for it, next time you're scratching your leg in that weird way or twitching, that tingling sensation that your phone is vibrating and it's nowhere near your physical body. Now I use these two as humorous examples, but to say whilst we may not have the longitudinal data or the research to confirm that technology is rewiring our brains, I think we can see from our own personal experience what a profound impact technology is having.
So why is it that we find it so hard to digitally disconnect? Why is it that we want to spend more time with pixels than with people? I'm going to explain now that there are three basic psychological drivers that explain why we have become infatuated, somewhat obsessed, with social media, and I'm also going to explain some of the neuropsychological reasons why we have become digitally dependent.
So in terms of psychological drivers, as human beings we share three fundamental needs. This is based on the self-determination theory and our three basic needs, as we heard earlier in Louise's talk, our fundamental need as humans is for connection. We are hard wired for relational connection. We want to feel like we belong. So it is easy to understand why our teens and young people have gravitated towards social media because it caters so perfectly for their desire and biological need for connection. The second need that we have is our need to feel like we are competent. We want to feel like we're in control of our environment. And in social media, I get to depict a sense of competency. As Louise indicated, I only share the highlight reel, I don't share the behind the scenes footage. So I can convince my followers, my friends, that I am a competent human being by what I share on social media channels. And my third need that I have, my third basic psychological need, is the need for control. We are hard-wired for automony. We want to have a sense of locus of control over our lives. And with social media, we get to choose that we are the causal agents. Social media, and gaming in particular, give us that need of feeling like we are in control.
But there are also neuropsychological reasons to explain why we have become dependent on technology, and our teens and young people as well. As Louise indicated, scrolling through Facebook, getting a like, comment or share, triggers the release of dopamine in the brain and a whole lot of other neurotransmitters like serotonin. So when we turn technology off, one of the reasons it's hard to turn off, is because we don't want to terminate our supply of dopamine. Who's a parent in the room? Anyone? So you know exactly what I'm talking about when I describe the technotantrum. For anyone unfamiliar with the technotantrum, this is when your otherwise well adjusted child or teenager emotionally combusts when you ask them to turn off the gaming console, pass back the phone or shut the laptop lid. Why is it that our kids behave like this? Because we're literally cutting off their dopamine supply when we digitally disconnect them.
One of the other reasons and I'm going to talk about this part of the brain in just a moment, but for now I want to explain this part of the brain, it's called the pre-frontal cortex. This is the logical part of the brain, this is the CEO, this is the air traffic control system. Whos's a parent to boys? I have 3 sons. Sorry 3 boys, two sons and a husband. I've got a bit of bad news for you, when does the male pre-frontal cortex fully develop? This is not a gender stereotype, this is neuroscience. Who said never? That was unfair! The pre-frontal cortex develops in the late 20s in males, and for those of you smugly thinking I'm a parent of girls, it's much better for me, it's not. The pre-frontal cortex in females develops in the early 20s, about 21-23 years of age. Why is this part of the brain important? The pre-frontal cortex does three important jobs. It manages impulses, it helps with our mental flexibility, and it helps with our working memory. Do you understand now why you may say the same thing to your teenager repeatedly and they look at you very vaguely each time as though they've never heard the information? They don't have a working memory.
But the big thing there I want to illuminate, is impulse control. That part of the brain that manages their impulses isn't fully developed. So they will share on social media, they will behave impulsively because their pre-frontal cortex is still under construction. Well this pre-frontal cortex has been biologically wired for novelty. We are always on the hunt, as human beings, for new and interesting information. And so social media, the online world in general, caters for that biological need. The online world is always new, it's always interesting, and it's always rewarding, with minimum cognitive effort to go into that reward. The offline world, the analogue world, the real world, isn’t always interesting. In fact the real world is slow-paced, and it's often boring. So when I talk to parents, I send them a virtual giant permission slip to say it is okay, in fact I suggest it is essential, for our kids and teens today, to learn what it's like to be bored. Boredom is absolutely critical, not only for their wellbeing, but also for their creative thinking.
But as adults, we have even lost the art of boredom. A study was done about four years ago with adult participants aged 18-34, and they put the adult participants in a room, no windows, no phones, no magazines, and they asked them to sit there and be bored for 7-15 minutes. Now as a mum to two small children who still put their fingers under the bathroom door, the idea of sitting in a room by myself, uninterrupted for 7-15 minutes sounds like utopia. I did not participate in the study, but the researchers had to prematurely terminate the study because the adult participants showed signs of psychological distress. They could not handle the idea of being bored for 7-15 minutes. Wait it gets better, the researchers went back to their ethics committee and they said, "we'd like to do iteration 2 of this study, but instead of subjecting our poor adult participants to the psychological stress of boredom, we'd like to give them the option of administering a small electric shock. They got the green light, completely ethical, I try relentlessly to get ethics approval on studies of iPads and kids but I'm told it's completely unethical but adults giving themselves electric shocks is completely fine. So knowing what you know now about the male pre-frontal cortex, and its delay in being fully developed, what percentage of males do you think elected to give themselves an electric shock in lieu of being bored. And it wasn't 100! 69% of males, 24% of females gave themselves an electric shock in lieu of boredom. I won't reveal the gender but in the data set there was somebody that we call an outlier, and they elected to give themselves 180 electric shocks in lieu of being bored. Social media, the online world in general, caters for our brain's desire for novelty. It's always new and interesting, you can see why I think boredom is essential.
One of the other reasons why we find it's so hard to digitally disconnect and for our teens in particular is because when they're online, scrolling through feeds or perhaps it's playing video games, they enter what we call the psychological state of flow. This is where they become so engrossed and enraptured in what they're doing, that they literally lose track of time. This is why paediatricians are treating increasing numbers of young children presenting with urinary and bowel incontinence because they're holding on just so they can get to the next level in the game or completely oblivious about how much time they have spent playing online. So when we become enraptured, we lose track of time. Any parents in here, when your little one looks at you with their puppy dog eyes, and says "but I've only just turned it on, I've only just started" and they've probably had 3 or 4 maybe even 5 hours, that is why. They have entered that state of flow.
The fourth reason that we are digitally disconnected in terms of our neuropsychological needs, and this is the one I personally grapple with the most, is something called the state of insufficiency. In the online world, we never ever feel like we are done. There is no finite finishing point. There is no end point. There's always something new I can update my social media feed with, there's always a new browser I can open, another level I can get to in the video game, another TV show I can watch thanks to 24/7 streaming. And so we never ever get that sense of being done. And so I'm often asked, "is this just moral panic?" Is this experience really any different to this experience. Who thinks yes? Are these qualitatively different? Aside from the medium in which they are delivered? And no I'm not talking about whether one delivers fake news and the other one delivers real news. That's open to debate as well. But what I want to point out is that the newspaper had a finite number of articles, a back cover, and a final story. Your device not only has an infinite amount of information, in fact we're calling it infobesity, but the other reason that we find it's so hard to switch this off compared to the newspaper, is that comes into our social media feeds thanks to algorithms, is highly curated and highly personalised. Now you could have obviously selected the newspaper of your choice in years gone by, but the content would not have been as personalised, as interesting as what comes into your social media feed.
So what do we need to know about young brains and why are they particularly vulnerable to social media demands? As I mentioned before, this pre-frontal cortex is still under development. This is the part of the brain that manages impulses and helps to make smart logical decisions. The part of the brain that's operating instead as this next video will show you, is the limbic system.
"So the pre-frontal cortex is the last region to fully develop. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain you need to make decisions, to think about the future, to think about consequences, you can kind of think of it like the Spock of the brain. Logical, calm and collected. And then deeper in the brain, there are emotional systems like the limbic system, which are more interested in immediate gratification. They're sorta like Captain Kirk, a risk-taker and a bit emotional. During the teenage years, the limbic system develops really quickly, and the prefrontal cortex is trying to catch up. Eventually, as individuals become adults, the prefrontal cortex will increasingly have more influence over behaviour than the impulsive part of the brain."
And so you can see why our kids are often engaging in cyber bullying, because they are impulsive and often their emotional brain is taking over as opposed to their prefrontal cortex. So, this is one of the reasons, that we need to be as parents, educators and carers, talking to our teens about what they're sharing online. We need to be encouraging them to critically think, and not only behave respectfully and responsibly, but to think critically about their digital DNA. We need our young people to understand that every post, comment, every blog post, every message that is sent online, even if deleted or dragged to the trash can, has digital DNA. And our young people are curating their digital futures from the minute they share their first post.
So how do we tame our kids' tech habits? What do we need to do? I firmly believe - I deliver seminars to parents throughout the country, and regardless of whether I'm speaking to parents of preschoolers or adolesceents, my message is the same. We need parents and carers to be the pilot of the digital plane. Parents often say "but I feel ill equipped, my child or teenager knows way more about the technology than what I do!" and that may be the case. I say use it to your advantage. What your teenager or young person doesn’t have, is your prefrontal cortex, nor do they have life experience or a catastrophe scale like you do. We need parents to be in the pilot seat of the digital plane, because if and when your child crashes the plane, or they go off course or they hit turbulence, perhaps they're cyberbullying, perhaps they've seen pornographic content or age-inappropriate content. If a parent or carer is in the driver seat, they're there to help them course-correct. However if you're way back in economy class, and your child or young person is in the pilot seat, what happens when they hit turbulence, they crash the plane. And this is one of the many reasons that I talk to parents about strongly discouraging using screen time as a reward or punishment tool. Why? If we offer screentime as a reward as I know many parents do, two things happen. Number one we elevate the status of technology even more. It's already innately pleasurable for all of our kids. And number two, we develop a transactional relationship with our kids. If you do this, then you can have this. And as any parent knows, you get backed into a no win position very quickly if you operate from that standpoint. When it comes to using screentime as a punishment, as Louise mentioned before, about some of the staggering cyberbullying statistics, we know that if children have the threat of digital amputation hanging over their head, if I do something naughty mum's going to confiscate my phone, will they go and tell a trusting adult if they're a victim of cyberbullying? They won't. it's akin to cutting off their oxygen supply. So we need as pilots of the digital plane to help our kids form healthy relationships with technology.
So some of the boundaries that parents can set up is delaying the introduction of social media. Most social media platforms have a legal of children required to be 13 years of age, we must make sure we are not introducing social media before they have the social and emotional skills to deal with the demands of social media. As parents we also have a responsibility to use internet filtering tools on every internet connected device that your child or young person has access to. There are so many tools out there, koalasafe, the one that I personally use with my children and recommend, is the family zone. Not only can you help manage and monitor what your child uses in terms of app and social media tools, you can also monitor and limit when they use screens. Ironically they're also digital tools, so for many adolescents, staying focussed on their homework and assignments, is really difficult when the temptation of social media is calling their name. so there are tools like self control, which allows you to block access to distracting websites or online tools at certain times. There are other tools like FocusMe and ironically also phone tools that will monitor and restrict access to particular sites at particular times.
In terms of how we overcome cyberbullying, one of the great tools that has been developed by a Queensland teacher here in Australia, and this is being readily adopted QLD and western australia schools at the moment, is a tool called Stymie. It's also a tool that parents can use. Using Stymie is an anonymous bullying alert system. Because the research is telling us overwhelmingly that in most cyber bullying incidents, unlike traditional bullying, where there was a physical altercation and there was usually a bystander, the bystander in traditional bullying would go and seek help. With cyber bullying, do bystanders go and seek help or stand up to cyberbullying? In most instances, in fact the research tells us about 83% of instances they don't. why? The threat of social ostracization is great, so they will not do it. So Stymie is one tool, as this video will show you, there's also another great tool that was developed by students and young people, this is basically a tool that acts like your child or adolescent's pre-frontal cortex.
"Reword is an affective tool that will help change online bullying. It's like a spellchecker, for bullying. It's a non-intrusive red line that strikes through insults as they're typed so people can reconsider what they're typing before they press send."
So again, empowering young people to use technology but use it in ways that compensate for some of their emerging social skills. So not only do parents need to enforce boundaries, but parents also need to help their children adopt and develop healthy habits if they're going to tame technology. One of the main things when I speak to parents is that we must strongly discourage young children using screens at night. Not only is it a huge risk to the quality and quantity of the sleep that young people are getting, but we also know that it is one of the prime times of the day when cyberbullying occurs. In fact some studies have suggested that 93% of cyberbullying in teens and young people. Why? At night time, the limited part of their prefrontal cortex that's operational shuts off. Have you ever noticed your young person is particularly illogical and irrational at night? Guess what part of the brain turns on at night. The amygdala. The emotional centre of the brain. So next time your partner is trying to pick a fight with you, you say to them, my prefrontal cortex is off, my amygdala is on, can we talk about this in the morning? Can you see why cyberbullying is so rife at night? We need to discourage the use of screens at night.
Another healthy habit that we can promote and this is a two pronged habit, is proximity, the old out of sight out of mind. Removing devices so they're not a mental trigger to actually pick them up and use them, so we don't start salivating like Pavlov's dogs every time we see an alert or notification on our screen. The second part of the proximity strategy is removing digital temptations from the homescreen of your smartphone or tablet. So that when you unlock the phone to actually make a phone call, you don’t succumb to Facebook or Instagram because those apps are on your device. Another strategy that works really well which is something that I've been implementing lately is the greyscale. Turning your smartphone to greyscale so that the coloured icons are nowhere near as appealing.
Families also need to establish tech free zones. Bedrooms, bathrooms, meal areas, cars and play areas. Cars for two reasons, any parent knows that cars are one of the few times of the day your kids are trapped in close proximity, and even though they might only give you a grunt, you might actually elicit some form of conversation. The other one I have learnt particularly as a parent to boys, is that boys, and I am also told adolescent boys and girls, but young boys in particular, love - do you all remember Dickie Knee from Hey Hey it's Saturday? - they love the Dickie Knee conversation. They would much rather talk to the back of your head or have side by side conversation, than face to face conversation, and the car is one of those opportunities. The other reason that we suggest not having screens in cars is because we now know many provisional drivers have formed such a strong habit that they use screens in the cars, guess what happens when they get their P plates? It's a near impossible habit to break.
So we need to establish tech free zones, as this video shows, I don’t think you need to go to these extreme lengths to make sure that meal areas are screen free areas, but you may in fact need to do so.
So what can we do to help young people tame their technology habits, particularly when it comes to social media? We need to talk to them about the three Ps. The first one, again because their prefrontal cortex is still developing, we need to encourage them to pause before they post, we need to encourage them to pause from their scars and not from their wounds, it's so easy particularly at nighttime when our amygdala is on, to post that comment or social media post that we later regret. So I talk to young people and I give them three strategies. Number one is the stadium strategy. If your phone was plugged in and put on the big screen in a full stadium, would you be okay with what you're sharing? Because our young people often don't understand, as Louise talked about, the immediacy and the gravity of what they're sharing online. The principal test - what would your headmaster or headmistress say if they saw what was shared on your device? And the last one the good old fashioned grandma test. What would grandma say if she unlocked your phone and saw what you were posting?
The second P we need to talk to our young people about is privacy. We are now seeing young people posting inappropriate content and sharing inappropriate content. I am working with primary school students at the moment who have been in trouble with the police because they have been distributing nude photos of other people. And there are criminal offences attached to doing so. We need to make sure that kids are aware of privacy and also whether they have permission to post.
So when it comes to taming technology it’s not about banning screens, it's about planning and helping your child by giving them healthy boundaries and also healthy habits. Digital amputation isn't the solution, in fact we know when we ban technology or we demonise it, it only drives the behaviour underground.
Thank you for your attention, I hope that has been helpful, and ironically, if you need to connect, there are digital channels and social media to do so. Thank you.
19 August 2018
Always scrolling? You're not alone, but it might not be as good for you as it feels! How can we enjoy the benefits of social media - without falling victim to some of the not-so-good aspects – such as cyberbullying or the “compare and despair” phenomenon? Join technology education expert and UTS Alumni, Kristy Goodwin, as she provides insights and practical tips for staying psychologically well in the digital world.
Test Tags: Screen time, screenagers, teens and screens, neuroscience, screens, social media, University of Technology Sydney, UTS, technology, UTS Science, UTS graduate, mental health, control, bored, digital, connection, facebook, Instagram, snapchat, vine, youtube, social network.
About the speaker
Kristy Goodwin is one of Australia’s leading digital parenting educators (and a mum who deals with her kids’ techno-tantrums!). She’s the author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, a speaker and digital wellness researcher, who doesn’t suggest that we ban the iPhone. Dr Goodwin completed a Bachelor of Education (Honours) at UTS and her postgraduate degree at Macquarie University. She worked as a primary school and early childhood educator for 14 years before becoming an academic.