Today’s Family: Screen time and the brain

Is social media making us antisocial? Consider this:

According to a stunning new study presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by University of Michigan researchers, today's teen are 40 percent less empathetic than those of 30 years ago, and college students who hit campus after 2000 have empathy levels that are 40 percent lower than those who came before them.

How were they even able to measure this? Empathy is not something we are born with. Self-centeredness present in the early years of life is a necessary component of the cognitive stages of development.

You are born into a conversation that goes something like this: Do your best. Life is hard. You've got this. If I cry, someone will come. Sometimes I'm on my own.

You learn early on to survive based on your early experiences and what your young brain interprets those experiences to mean. The rational part of a teen's brain isn't fully developed and won't be until age 25 or so.

Enter social technology. Now your interpretations include the experiences of your Facebook friends, Instagram, Google, violent video games, and reality television all accessible instantly at the push of a button.

This should be a wakeup call to ensure that at home, and at school, kids are getting enough face-to-face time. Human interaction is what teaches us how to put ourselves in the place of others. It is the stimulation of the senses — what you hear, see, touch, and feel as a result of that interaction — that contributes to the emotion of understanding what it's like to be that person. You probably can't imagine what it's like to be hungry, but visit a food bank or soup kitchen and sit with those who don't know where their next meal will come from and gain a whole new level of appreciation which inspires you to act and engage. In some cases, it can be transformational.

In addition to the ability to empathize with others, various studies have shown that screen addictions can lead to changes in the brain's gray matter. Kids can lose acuity in several important domains, including organization, planning skills, impulse control, and think fast-on-your-feet decision making, risking permanent damage to the developing brain, impeding the development parents are so eager to foster. If too much screen time zaps brains of the ability to reason, kids face greater risks for early sex, drug and alcohol abuse, and other high-risk behavior.

When smartphones and computers put a screen between a bully and a victim, kids lose the instant feedback that their actions are hurtful. So, they don't stop. It's easy to say whatever and whenever we want if there are little or no consequences. Screens don't divorce kids from just the real world, but the consequences of living in that world.

Babies and kids learn about human interaction through the senses as well as through speaking to their parents and having them model it back. Kids need human interaction — period — if they're ever to gain empathy, and each additional screen gets in the way of that.

We learn to bond through direct interaction with humans. You and your kids should be spending more time on strengthening personal relationships than growing your virtual friend list. Enough face-to-face time is necessary to ensure we become competent social beings, not just "social doings." Social technology is here to stay; we just need to make sure it's not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to


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About Kim Engstrom

Kim Engstrom is a certified mental health counselor and mother of two located in Chadds Ford. Online Counseling and Walk and Talk Therapy now available. For questions or more information on this topic visit or Facebook at Kim Engstrom and KE Counseling Services. A complimentary 30-minute discovery call or in office meeting is available to all first-time clients to discuss your family goals.



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