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Why no screens for adolescents?

At St. Anthonys, students are not permitted to bring phones, tablets, or computers to school, but we go a step further and ask that parents be on board with no screens, email or social media accounts at home, either. That may sound extreme in this technocentric age, but there are good reasons to limit screen exposure on the developing brain to weekly family movie night and maybe a few instructional YouTube videos. We are seeking to create a culture connected to the real, free of the resultant health issues that pervade our screen-addicted culture, and committed to purity.

Screens - TV, video games, phones, tablets and computers - are all guilty of removing us from the real. “Much of what happens on screen provides ‘impoverished’ stimulation of the developing brain compared to reality,” says Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, associate professor of pediatrics at HMS, and associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “When a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, he will learn to always prefer smartphone-style interaction—that is, immediate gratification and response—over real-world connection.” At St. Anthonys, we believe in the necessity of connecting to the real - in nature, experiential learning, vicarious experience through story, and in relationship with our fellow human beings. The onslaught of images fed us by television and video games retards the use of our own imaginations. We want our students get away from the screen culture to develop true friendships, bond with their families, help others, learn new things by experience, and play.

Neurologists are coming out with more studies all the time that confirm the derogatory effects of screens on bodies, brains, eyesight, sleep, attention capabilities, mental health and more. Although adults can also succumb to screen addiction, we know that the effects of screens on the developing brain are even more harmful, and our brains do not finish developing until around age 25. Consider the following:

- Children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests.

- Brain scans [have shown] that kids with lots of screen time had a premature thinning of the cortex. This outermost layer of the brain processes different types of information from the senses.

- Researchers have shown that the frontal lobe development is actually being retarded by all this screen time. This is the part of the brain which is responsible for the child’s attention span, controlling emotions and empathic skills.

- Viewing violent programs activates areas associated with negative affect, including the right amygdala, posterior cingulate, inferior parietal, premotor cortex, hippocampus and parahippocampus bilaterally, and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex.

- Prospective studies have causally linked media excess in young children with impulsive and aggressive behavior, obesity, and delayed development of language and reading skills. A recent, large longitudinal study replicated and expanded previous findings that attentional problems associated with increased video game and screen media use persisted into adolescence.

- ...researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that college students who limited their screen time to less than 30 minutes a day were less lonely and depressed, even after just three weeks.

- Researcher Jean Twenge’s famous work has shown strong links between time spent on screens and depression and suicidality in teens. A recent study of hers reported that teens who spent more time on screens in the form of social media, internet, texting, and gaming thought about suicide a lot more than kids who didn’t...In fact, teens who spent more time doing sports, homework, socializing with friends in real life, and going to church had a lower risk for both depression and suicide.

- ...researcher, Dr. Kara Bagot, scans teenagers’ brains while they look at images on Instagram. Based on her research so far, she believes social media can be addictive. It stimulates the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that contributes to feelings of pleasure and plays a role in addiction. Bagot suggests that the dopamine stimulated when teens use social media can make them more likely to use social media compulsively.

- According to all the experts,.. electronic screen syndrome (ESS) is causing sleep deprivation, social isolation, behavior problems, and a hyper aroused nervous system.

Many teens who stay up late texting are not only getting less shut-eye, they’re also lacking the deep REM sleep essential for processing and storing information from that day into memory.

These are only a few of the reasons identified by scientists, doctors, and neurological researchers why we should limit our children’s screen time. Ideally, we strive to limit our screen time as adults as well. As mentioned in Psychiatric Times, “Screen media affects not only children but adults as well. Parents become less adept at interacting with their youngsters as they carry on their own, adult functions of running a home. Media can disrupt the normal, attuned parent-child feedback that is the foundation of emotional regulation. This implies that while heavy media use tends to co-occur with other aspects of family dysfunction, it also appears to be an independent toxic agent.”

Lastly, we want to spare our adolescents the additional obstructions to purity offered on-screen - it is enough of a battle in our hypersexualized culture as it is. Who is not aware of the increased numbers of pornography addicts since the rise of the internet? It is a plague, readily available to anyone who has access to Google or, these days, a television set. Given that adolescents are still developing the ability to recognize long-term consequences, have an increased likelihood of developing an addiction, and are struggling to balance a natural sexual curiosity with a call to chastity, why would we make things exponentially more difficult for them by placing internet-enabled technology in their hands? Some say they need to learn moderation and proper internet usage gradually throughout adolescence, just as they learn to operate a vehicle under parental supervision before taking to the roads, but it is more like letting them try moderate amounts of cocaine; screens - and the pornography they give access to - are addictive and, unlike driving, effect the brain in a similar way to hard drug addiction, sometimes with irreversible effects. Pornography and twisted sexual information also serve to confuse adolescents as they grow into sexual maturity, causing them to wonder if they might be able to escape the normal hormonal challenges of this period if they were a different gender or sexual orientation. In addition to being accosted and confused by pornography, adolescents with social media accounts or access to chat rooms have been regularly propositioned, stalked, abused, kidnapped, and sold into sex trafficking. The internet opens them up to a world of perversity and those who will view our children as objects of pleasure or profit.

I know that many view limiting adolescent screen time to a family movie night on the weekend as unrealistic, or even as unadvisable. If you are happy with your teen’s screen access and do not want the possible difficulty of limiting it, St. Anthonys is not the school for you. If screens are prohibited at school alone, the screen culture will continue to seep into the classroom environment though the access granted at home. We are seeking to support families who long to reconnect to the real and who are not afraid of saying no to the whiny requests for phones, tablets, or video games they may hear for a while. I will say, before we began our pilot program this year, my thirteen year old was begging for a phone most days of the week, and after being immersed in poetry, folk songs, contra dancing, quail coop construction, gardening, good books, dog sledding, and more, she has not asked for a phone but once in the past three months. If you want to begin a healing of those imaginations stupified by screens, come join us.


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