Internet "Brain Rot" Is A Real Thing, Especially For Children

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With the rise in technology, comes the risk of "brain rot" from over-exposure to the online world, for both children and adults. While it's easy to occupy a child with a YouTube video, there are long-term effects of this constant consumption of online content.


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The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my phone. On the bus, I scroll through Twitter. At work, I look at a laptop screen all day. During my thirty minute break, I watch thirty minutes of the TV show I’m currently obsessed with. 

On the bus ride home, I plug in my headphones while scrolling through Instagram. I get home and re-open my laptop to continue watching the TV show. Before bed, I scroll through TikTok. I close my eyes with the screen light still reflecting in my mind.

I’m twenty-one years old and my brain feels “foggy”.  

The reason behind this feeling is no mystery. I know exactly why my eyes feel strained, why my attention span is minimal. I’m fully aware that it’s because I'm constantly looking at a screen on one or more devices.  

My friends and I like to joke that our brains are “rotting” but I’m starting to think there is some truth to that joke.

I have been trying to limit my screen time for a few years now, and I’ve had some success, such as reading physical books instead of the electronic versions, actually falling asleep at a decent time instead of mindlessly watching video after video on TikTok, and taking walks and listening to music without looking at my phone to change the song. I haven’t been as consistent as I would like to be, but I’m trying. 

I’m someone old enough to be responsible for a laptop and a phone, and I have the control to stop doing something if it’s not serving me in a healthy way anymore. Children, on the other hand, aren't quite there yet.

If my (semi-) adult brain is feeling this way almost all of the time, feeling “foggy” and “rotten”, what are the brains of children who are also owners of technology and consumers of online content feeling like?

Children under the age of thirteen, those still in primary school and who are largely dependent on their parents for almost everything, don’t have the same power to recognize when their brains are becoming “foggy" from too much screen time.

Social media and technology has become such an inseparable part of our modern day life, not only for adults but also for children. 

These days, we can’t imagine ourselves functioning without a phone, laptop, access to search engines like Google and social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, to mention a few.

I was born in 2001, so (at the risk of sounding like a Boomer), I was one of those children that spent time playing outside for hours on end. I got my first cellphone when I was 10-years-old, and it was a Nokia brick phone with zero Internet access, so I couldn’t do much with it and therefore had the opportunity to develop interests that weren't reliant on Wi-Fi.

I currently know kids aged eight with iPhones and vibrant TikTok accounts. 

The problem is not necessarily that children are in possession of their own devices, it’s more to do with the unlimited and sometimes unsupervised access to the bottomless rabbit hole of content that is easily available on the World Wide Web. 

Dr. Erica Munnik, a Clinical Psychologist in the Department of Psychology at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), says that children’s play and how they occupy themselves has changed to incorporate the rise of technology.  

“Small children are exposed to social media from a very early stage: the TV is seen by many parents as a good alternative to keep children occupied and stimulated. Some parents even prefer social media to the more traditional play as social media is often perceived as a 'safer' option. A limited number of children are allowed to play outside or in parks, mostly confined to the house and their rooms,” elaborates Dr. Munnik.  

Society has changed and while there is a need to incorporate technology into our daily lives (personally and professionally), it becomes a problem when it starts to impact our functioning. 

If used consciously, social media actually has a multitude of benefits.

“Exposure to social media allows children to become more independent as learners. They are able to explore topics on national and international databases, able to navigate their way amongst various resources that are available to assist in their learning. With the push of a button, they can gather information locally and internationally. 

Children are also able to connect to family members and friends more readily, thus they are able to stay connected and bridge distance. For example, many parents work far from home, [but] with modern technology, children are able to establish regular contact with parents, family and friends through a variety of video and other 'real time' interactions,” explains Dr. Munnik. 

Used negatively, the after-effects are detrimental. 

Some of the drawbacks of constant exposure to the media (and social media) are that children are exposed to an overload of that social media without any healthy limits being set. This could lead to a variety of challenges such as overstimulation and exposure to content that is developmentally inappropriate. 

Dr. Munnik adds that this might impact the way that children perceive themselves, their family and the community that they reside in. It can also lead to non-conducive or oppositional behaviours, low self-esteem and even problems with emotional regulation and social interaction. 

There’s also a disconnect between what is circulating and being perceived online, versus what is actually taking place in real life.

On TikTok, the term “chronically online” has been crowned the buzzword of the season, that many use but aren’t fully aware of what it actually means or how to use it in the proper context. 

The Wikipedia definition is “Extremely online, also known as terminally online or chronically online, is a phrase referring to someone closely engaged with Internet culture. People said to be extremely online often believe that online posts are very important," while Urban Dictionary describes it as “Someone who is basically always on the Internet and their entire existence revolves around being on the internet. People who are chronically online typically have no real friends IRL (In Real Life), and stay online, starting useless debates that literally achieve nothing outside of a screen.” 

I am an avid consumer of pop culture, but I also try very hard to engage in content that’s not “oblivious” to the real world happening around me; I try to practise critical thinking in instances that require it. 

I’m also 21, so my brain has developed enough for critical thinking. For children, who haven’t yet acquired that same ability, there is no separation of online and real life. 

“Video and TV shows are representations of life and not ‘real life’. One needs to be able to distinguish between the two. Chronic online engagement without respites disrupts our real life experiences and impacts our ability to learn through real life exposure,” says Dr. Munnik. 

The negative results of being constantly exposed to the Internet can also filter into school and academics, as well as how children interact with others and perform social cues.

“Children tend to model behaviour,” says Dr. Munnik. “Research, for instance, has shown [that] an increase in aggressive behaviour [can occur] if children are exposed to social media that includes violence.”  

During school, the ability to focus and pay attention for long periods of time is a requirement. 

TikTok videos are short in length (three minutes at most); studies have indicated that the shortened speed at which we consume one video after the next has, in turn, created a short attention span.

Tests, homework and daily lessons are not three minutes in length. As mentioned previously, the general rule of thumb is that social media becomes counter-beneficial if it significantly begins to impact daily functioning in a negative way. 

Dr. Munnik gives the example of not being committed to doing homework because a child may have a preference for gaming, or excessive gaming, that impacts sleep patterns and disturbs focus. 

It may contribute to difficulties with concentration and attention, meaning they might need more breaks in between completing a task to be able to learn effectively. 

The incorporation of technology within school environments definitely assists children (and teachers) when it comes to improving reading and language skills, hand-eye coordination and visual perception abilities. But, a balance needs to be negotiated. 

“Children also need to play, socialise and engage in spontaneous learning activities in their natural environment. Face to face interaction with family, friends, teachers and other adults is essential to enhance social and emotional skills. It also combats [the] overload of exposure to social media,” says Dr. Munnik.

According to Dr. Munnik, research shows that children under the age of five years need to be restricted to only one hour of exposure to technology/social media a day, whilst children over the age of six years need to be further restricted to combat overstimulation and the use of various social platforms that are available to them.

Balance is important, but many children are allowed to “game” for endless hours; this has a negative impact on their activity levels, may lead to exhaustion, problems with attention, lack of sleep, behaviours such as aggressiveness, obesity and physical problems such as the development of musculoskeletal problems, not to mention the possibility of cyber-bullying which can lead to extreme isolation as a result of heightened feelings of anxiety and depression, and an increase in stress levels. 

While parental blocks and child-specific content (such as YouTube Kids) is in existence, there is always the risk that they’ll see something not meant for their eyes that they are unable to fully comprehend just yet; essentially, children becoming exposed to the side of the internet that is filled with “big people content” can affect their mental health in the long run. 

Dr. Munnik says that if children are exposed to such content (or content that they have not been exposed to before), it may lead to confusion, shame and even feelings of guilt. If they are unable to communicate or speak about what they saw, they may begin to act out or become withdrawn. 

The new reality is that often children have their own devices from earlier than 13 years of age. It makes life easier for parents to establish contact with their children if needed and also gives children the ability to reach out to friends.

The important thing is for parents to be able to monitor and regulate the use of those devices so that the temporary joy from being in front of a screen doesn't "rot" a child's brain. 

 

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