March 19, 2011

The Seduction of the Screen - My Interview


The Seduction of the Screen

Interview with Kendra Wagner by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW

With great discomfort I watch my nine year old twins clutch their DS games with all the vigor of a dying man to his final breath. I'm around the nine-year-old-boy set enough to know that this is normal--if disturbing--behavior. So I decided to interview Kendra Wagner, a Seattle-based learning specialist, about what exactly it is that makes electronic screens so seductive and how conscientious parents can try to mediate their effects on children with Attention Deficit Disorder.

I hope you find this information as informative and motivating as I did. My children, however, are burning her effigy.

How can we help ADD-ers become engaged with non-screen activities?
That is a long answer, and much of it ties in to the list of common-sense treatments for ADD that the experts have drawn up for us. We need to take care of our whole selves, we always hear. Screen time takes care of well, our need for retreat, and helps eye-hand coordination. Research shows little more than that for the positives. As ADD-ers we know we need train our brain to crave down time, to insert physical activity into our day, to take medication, supplements, or both. The “pull” of TV, movies, video games, online activities, and cell phones is especially strong for ADD-ers, because it is the novelty and newness factor is ever-present. You can switch channels in TV, fast forward in movies, switch levels in video games, and switch entire websites on the internet. Oh yes, and text several people at a time on phones. So for those of us who dread tedium or slower pacing, screens are very enticing.

What is a screen addiction?
A screen addiction is characterized by insatiability and also an inability to gauge your time spent online, or in front of a particular game or program. Screen addiction means that screens are mood-altering and the addict is dependent on it—that they have anxiety or identity crisis (no matter how small)when they try to stop using screens for a day or two.

How does screen addiction impact learning?
We take in a lot every moment through the eyes, more than a few decades ago, which is only part of how we learn. Kids in school in their average day take in a lot visually and auditorally but to really learn something we need more. Screens cannot take us there. Also, the rate in which kids in school process what is coming in needs to vary in pacing or rate.

Varied rates of processing are necessary because we are all individuals. Some kids need fast/slow/average pace, and some need all of that, with repeated exposure, depending on their own brain make-up, or the subject being learned.

Neurologically how are we wired to learn?
The three ways we learn are:

Visual: through the eyes

Auditory: via the ears

And Kinesthetic: through the skin, this includes touch, internal sensations, and hands-on experience.

As a culture we are not encouraging kinesthetic learning as much as we could be. A child who is watching the world of today sees people interacting with screens and concludes that is how to communicate, learn and to entertain oneself.

How do screens hijack the learning process?
Often screens with video games, TV shows, or movies, and many educational websites or software, have very fast moving images. The speed of the images does not mirror the pace that our human brains are wired to move or process. In the same way that pornography doesn’t mirror the natural pace of a relationship, video games do not mirror the natural pace of engaging with the world or learning something deeply. So then the child or adult addicted to screens grows to expect that pace to be how off screen life responds to them.

Children and teenagers can become frustrated with the steps and time required to develop mastery. They will ask “can’t I just go to another game?” when playing an educational game that requires mastering a subset of skills before moving on. In a video game you can always start over and often you are able to go to a level you are comfortable. There are even “cheat codes” that can be used to “fake” mastery.

Can you talk about frustration tolerance and screen addiction?
For adults, frustration tolerance is required for creating a personal change. For children, it’s required when learning a new social or academic skill. Frustration tolerance is a willingness to have small, micro failures or frustrations while keeping an end goal in mind. Kids and adults without long term gratification skills (AKA Frustration Tolerance) expect things to be instantaneous. They also lack “gray area” thinking and will assign rigid categories to themselves and others such as smart/dumb and then not want to keep going with effort once they have put themselves in these boxes.

I’ve noticed that my clients who have screen addictions don’t take real interpersonal risks.
Right, because in real life there is no “reset” button.

So what do you suggest?
We are in a world of screens so we don’t want to pretend they don’t exist. I suggest that parents have a good mix: provide an equivalent amount of face to face time that matches the screen time your children have. A four hour play date equals four hours of screen time, on the weekend. And I always suggest no video games during the school week. That honors the fact that school and homework are the child’s “job” and the weekend is their time off, so to speak. Also it is harder to get addicted when you have five days without it.

Research shows that kids learn best when screen exposure is short. An enormous part of learning, in both reading and in doing, from sports to medical school, involves making pictures in your head. Apraxia, an uncommon learning disability, and related disorders of language comprehension, is becoming more common because the part of the brain that creates images is “getting less exercise” in screen culture.

Visual processing (seeing and making sense of images) is different than generating (creating one’s own image based on imagination) processing. We know this from brain imaging research. So with screen over-use, that part of the brain is not going to the gym.

If we want to become an expert in anything or to feel we have a special skill, then we need to give our attention and a slower pace to that learning process. Screens are a tool in being a learner. They cannot substitute for mentors, concentrated time, or kinesthetic learning.

Kendra Wagner is a learning specialist in private practice in North Seattle, who primarily teaches children reading, writing, and thinking skills. She also consults in schools and advocates for children. Her specialty in ADD and Dyslexia grew out of her work in schools as a reading specialist and consultant, when she saw so many students being mislabeled, mistreated, and mis-instructed. She has a particular interest in how the brain develops, learns, and adapts to family and school environments.

Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti is a psychotherapist specializing in trauma, ADHD and relationships. Tanya is a skilled individual, family and group therapist with a specialty in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. EMDR is a researched and proven method that has helped decrease feelings of anxiety and increase feelings of wellbeing for tens of thousands of people. She enjoys her screens responsibly.