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Devices May Be Making Our Children Smarter, but Is There a Catch?

My three-year-old daughter’s face wavers in shifting patterns of light from the mini iPad held in her hands.


As she lies on the couch, with her feet resting on my knees, I watch the small twin screens reflected in her lenses. Her bright blue irises flare with each change of scene. The obsidian darkness of her tiny pupils grows and shrinks beneath.

Behind this diorama – a juxtaposition between modern technology and ancient evolution – something remarkable is occurring.

Each sight and sound will be converted by specialized receptor cells into nerve impulses. Traveling at speeds in excess of 100 meters per second, they will reach her cerebral cortex through a complex exchange of information through nerve cell synapses.

Since birth, her brain has more than tripled in volume as it constantly builds the new neural circuits needed to process all the new stimuli she is bombarded with. In the first few years of her life, her brain has formed approximately one million new neural connections every second.

Growing up in a small Australian country town, in the late 70s and early 80s, I was exposed to relatively simple environmental factors. Our black and white television was rarely watched. Photos took a week to develop. Letters were delivered to the mailbox. Upon starting Prep, I couldn’t count beyond 10 or even spell my own first name.

In comparison, my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter knows all the letters of the alphabet thanks to the ABC Kids app. She takes pictures on her iPad, can write her own name, and do basic addition and subtraction.

So, is she smarter than I was at her age?

 

 

The simple answer is, “yes,” according to University of Otago Emeritus Professor James Flynn. Flynn is a political scientist who became famous in the 80s for his landmark discovery that, from the 30s onwards, there has been substantial gains in IQ scores in many parts of the world. This improvement has continued up to the present day and has become known as the “Flynn Effect”.

“The brain is like a muscle and there is no doubt that it will respond to stimulation,” Flynn says. “To give you an illustration, in 1900 no one drove a car. In 1950 everyone drove a car. Between 1900 and 1950 the hippocampus grew in size because it’s the map reading part of the brain. Today, thanks to the automated guidance system, the size of the hippocampus is going down because we are no longer doing the relevant exercise.”

As early as 2008, researchers were discovering the beneficial effects of computer use on the brain. In a ground-breaking study scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that internet use appears to boost brain function. And, according to a Journal of Molecular Psychiatry paper, video game exposure induces structural brain plasticity and improves our performance on attention demanding and perceptual tasks.”

But as to whether these brain expansion effects leads to an improvement in complex life skills, such as problem solving and planning, remains open to debate.

“People think that any stimulation of the brain necessarily pays big dividends,” says Flynn. “But it’s not clear if there’s a transfer to more socially significant cognitive skills. The rise of IQ has limited effects when accompanied by the rise of ignorance.”

Dr. David Bickham, research scientist at Harvard University’s Centre on Media and Child Health, has spent more than 20 years exploring how media, as an environmental factor, can influence children’s physical, mental, and social development. When I spoke to him on the phone from Massachusetts, USA, it was 9 p.m. local time and his two children, aged three and five, were asleep in bed. “It’s important to differentiate between general media use – just exposure to devices like tablets – with programs that are specifically designed for education,” says Bickham. “The evidence shows pretty convincingly that it’s not so much the exposure to a device that makes the difference, but it’s what you do with it, and the content you’re exposed to.”

Even with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent reduction of recommended maximum screen time for children under the age of five to just one hour a day, Bickham, as both a researcher and parent, believes restrictions like these have become a moot point. “In a world where screen use and technology is so pervasive, time of use starts to be more difficult to measure and less important to make guidelines on,” he says. “The more pertinent question to ask ourselves is: What’s most important developmentally for the kid, and is the kid getting that? And if they are, then I don’t think some screen time is going to hurt.”

Bickham does caution, however, that parents should use media mindfully, and it should never replace important parent-child interactions which are critical for a child’s development. “I have not seen anything that would convince me that devices are giving a child something which is stimulating them in a way beyond an activity like reading with their parent,” he says. “We really are interpersonal beings and our information comes from our interactions with other people. The parent-child exchange that goes on with shared activities cannot be replicated artificially with a device.”

Regardless of the debate surrounding the potential benefits or negatives of screen time on the brain, it is indisputable that computers, tablets, and smartphones are here to stay.

According to the Internet Live Stats site there are currently more than 3.6 billion people with an Internet connection, and the Statista company estimates there are 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world today. Device detection organization DeviceAtlas reports that 87 per cent of smartphone users say they “always have their phone at their side, day and night,” and, startlingly, a joint US–Canadian study found that one in 10 people check their phone during sex.

Daniel Battaglia, 34, is founder and CEO of online business ParkingMadeEasy and a self-confessed “device addict” who epitomizes today’s tech-savvy population. He believes modern technology has definitely made him smarter. “Having a connected device provides instant access to so much human knowledge that was never easily accessible before,” he says. “It gives me the freedom to connect with people, learn new things, keep up-to-date with news, and grow my own business. And it’s all done remotely, from anywhere.”

Not everyone is so effusive. Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president Professor Malcolm Hopwood says while there is no doubt that devices have been a wonderful aid to society, there exists a subset of people who have become overly overdependent on them. “We are seeing concerns where devices can blur the boundaries between people’s work life and their personal life,” says Hopwood. “It’s really important that people get sufficient time away from work. Personal devices can make that difficult.”

So, considering all this conflicting advice, am I going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius or a smartphone-addled addict? Or will such an artificial distinction soon not exist anymore?

These thoughts worry me as I stand up and touch my daughter gently on the cheek.

“It’s bedtime,” I say.

Tears and tantrums follow. As they do virtually every night. Even when I promise to read her The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

It’s time for Plan B.

My daughter’s tears abruptly stop when she sees the envelope in my hand. It’s plastered with animal stickers and her name and address are written on the front in big pink glitter letters.

“What’s that, Mummy?”

“It’s a card,” I say. “It’s for you.”

I give her the envelope and watch as her fingernails frantically pry open the flap. She squeals in delight when she tugs out the card. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a chicken complete with yellow feathers and big black googly eyes.

“Grandma made it,” I say.

My daughter giggles and I smile. Happy that, at least for now, there are still some things that screen time just can’t beat.

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Dear Jeff Bezos and all who have anything to do with Amazon Prime Day,

I just want to start by saying—I know you are trying to be helpful. I love you all for that. I honestly do. But, you are kind of making me feel a lot of pressure today. Like, in a good way, but also, in an anxious way.

Let me explain…

On any given day, as a mother to three children, I have a certain level of anxiety. While it's not constant, I do have my anxious moments. Why? Because there are various versions of the following: Me asking my two older daughters to get their shoes on what feels like 500 times as I am changing my 9-month-old's very, very, very messy diaper while I am trying to figure out what I can throw on to wear in about five seconds while I am repeating brush your teeth, brush your teeth in my head so I, in fact, don't forget to brush my teeth.

Not even to mention the mental load that weighs on my mind every single day. Remember to flip the laundry, fill out the school forms, cancel that appointment, reschedule this appointment, order more diapers, figure out what we're having for dinner, squeeze in a shower, lock the basement door so the baby can't get down the stairs, find better eczema cream for my middle daughter, get more sunscreen...the list goes on and on and on.

But then you Amazon Prime Day me and I'm having a lot of feelings about that.

Because you're reminding me of things I need to order, to think about, to be on top of more.

The little potty that's on sale reminds me that I need to step up my potty training game for my 2-year-old. That super cute dollhouse reminds me that I need to think about my daughter's first birthday in two months (WHAT!). That face mask reminds me that I need to remember to wash my face before bed because I forget waaaay more than I remember which is terrible.

But then I realize, these deals are going to save my mental load by fixing my life. Right?

Like, I never knew I needed an Instant Pot until you told me it was only $58. Now I am scouring Pinterest for meals I want to prep in my own. THIS POT IS THE TICKET TO GETTING MY LIFE IN ORDER.

Do we need more plates and cups for the kids? I mean really they only probably need about two plates and two cups each but YES. Yes I do need more cute kids kitchenware. THESE PLATES ARE THE TICKET TO BEING A GOOD MOM.

What would I do if I had five Echo Dots? I don't know, but let's find out because they're only $29! THESE DOTS ARE THE TICKET TO EFFICIENCY.

If I order a Vitamix at 30% off, I know I'll lose the baby weight. Think of all the smoothies I'll mix up! I mean, I just lost a pound even thinking about the smoothies that thing can whip up. THIS VITAMIX IS THE TICKET TO A SEXY BOD.

Buying this trendy, floral dress will step up my mom style significantly. THIS DRESS IS THE TICKET TO KEEPING MY COOL.

Okay, then after I add all the fixers to my cart, I realize… I have 99 things, but necessity ain't one.

I mean, I have everything from waterproof band-aids to bras to dresses for myself and my kids to an alarm clock and books. I basically feel like Oprah—You get an Audible subscription! You get an Audible subscription!—but instead of these products magically being paid for by Queen O herself, the money is coming from my bank account, which is a lot less fun of a game, TBH.

And if I am being honest, I don't need much help with my order-things-from-Amazon-and-pretend-it's-being-paid-for-with-Monopoly-money game as I am quite often coming home to an Amazon package wondering what it could be, opening it with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning—even though I am the exact person who ordered whatever is inside of that Amazon box.

But today, on Amazon Prime Day, you tempt me with all the deals. And yes, my anxiety, blood pressure and adrenaline rise. And yes, my bank account might temporarily decrease—BUT if we are being fair, with the savings I'm getting on things I would buy anyway, I am basically making our account increase overall. Right?

And while these things aren't going to make me skinnier, or cooler, or more put together—I'm okay with that. I am doing a pretty good job on my own. But some of them will actually help my life in a few different ways at a reasonable price, and I am grateful for that—for real.

Now, Bezos, please end this 404 error nonsense and let me purchase all the things!

Thank you for all the savings and excitement,

Mamas everywhere

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Usually when celebrities post swimsuit photos on Instagram they don't exactly look like your average beach-going mom, but former Bachelorette (and mom of two) Ali Fedotowsky posted a series of bikini photos on Monday that are both beautiful and relatable.

"This might be my most vulnerable post on Instagram ever," she wrote in the caption for the photos which show a postpartum belly that looks like a real postpartum belly.

"At the end of the day, I know it's important to be open and honest about my postpartum body in hopes that it helps even one person out there who is struggling with their own body image," Fedotowsky (who just gave birth to her second child in May) wrote.

In the first photo of the series she's wearing a sarong around her stomach, but in the second and third photos Fedotowsky reveals the kind of stomach many mamas sport: It's not perfectly taut, she's not showing off any abs, but it is definity beautiful.

"If you swipe to see the second photo in this post, you see that my body has changed. My skin around my stomach is very loose and stretched out, I'm 15lbs heavier than I used to be, and my cup size has grown quite significantly," Fedotowsky writes.

The photos are a sponsored post for Lilly and Lime Swimwear (a line made for women with larger busts) but that doesn't mean it wasn't brave. In fact, the fact that it's an ad makes it even more amazing because research shows that when advertising only shows us bodies that don't look like our own, women become "generally more dissatisfied with their body and appearance".

Ali Fedotowsky

On her blog Fedotowsky notes that a lot of comments on her previous Instagram posts have been followers remarking how slim she looks, or how much they wish they looked like she does postpartum. By dropping that sarong and showing her tummy Fedotowsky is showing other mothers that there is nothing wrong with their own.

"While I appreciate the positive comments, you guys are always so good to me, I keep trying to explain that I'm just good at picking out clothes that flatter my body and hide my tummy," she wrote on her blog.

"I bounced back pretty quickly after I gave birth to Molly. But things are different this time and I'm OK with that. I'm learning to love my body and embrace how it's changed. I hope I get back to my pre-pregnancy shape one day, but that may never happen. And if it doesn't, that's OK."

Ali Fedotowsky

It is okay, because our bodies are more than our swimsuit selfies. They the vessels that carry us through life and carry our children and provide a safe, warm place for those children feel love.

Loose skin is a beautiful thing.


Thanks for keeping it real, Ali.

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Amazon shoppers were anxiously awaiting the countdown to Amazon Prime Day, but when the clock struck one, er three, the website went down.

On Monday afternoon shoppers were trying to get their hands on the much-hyped Prime Day deals but instead of low prices, many users just saw 404 errors, continuously refreshing pages, or had issues keeping or adding items to their shopping carts.

CNBC reports shares of Amazon were down during the shopping glitch, and many shoppers took to Twitter and Instagram to discuss how all they could see on Amazon were the dogs who decorate the site's 404 pages.

As cute as the dogs are, shoppers are getting tired of seeing them, so hopefully Amazon gets things back up and running soon. Analysts had projected Amazon would rake in $3 billion dollars this Prime Day. Time will tell how much of that was lost during the great dog picture debacle of 2018.

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"Say you're sorry!"

"Go apologize and mean it."

"You don't sound like you're sorry to me."

"She won't want to be your friend anymore if you don't apologize right now."

Sound familiar? This is a hot topic for many parents. We want our kids to have good manners, to truly feel and show compassion for another, to want to apologize from a heartfelt and authentic place—yet when we tell them to say they're sorry, what are we really communicating?

I think:

  • I need you to apologize so I can feel better about what just happened...
  • This is how we fix problems...
  • I need you to do what I say ...
  • You need me to tell you how to feel and behave...
  • I'm in control...(bigger and stronger wins)
  • Integrity is secondary to apologies—what you do doesn't have to be aligned with how you feel or think... just do it anyway.

Whew. Maybe not the message we really want to give.

Yes, manners are important and apologies are necessary. But, encouraging the growth of this from within—a genuine desire to (re)connect and show compassion, being in our integrity—is essential for healthy relationships.

Think about it. How might you feel if, after being hurt deeply by a friend they brushed you off with a cursory, "I'm sorry" or after a tearful yelling match with your teen that left you feeling raw, your spouse said, "How could you lose it like that?! You need to go apologize to him!"

I'd venture to say you might feel more hurt, maybe misunderstood and alone, or even mad.

Often, situations our children are in that we catch ourselves telling them to apologize are defined by just the same kinds of feelings. Hurt whether they are the one doing the hurting or being hurt; frustrated and mad that their favorite toy was grabbed, a cool idea rejected, some other injustice experienced; misunderstood because their feelings and thoughts weren't respected, because the adult missed all that led up to the conflict, because they weren't listened to; alone because they are misunderstood, not listened to, hurt on the inside, feeling rejected; MAD because they really didn't like what their buddy did and their feelings overflowed.

Having your child say "I'm sorry" is going to do very little for a child to grow an understanding of how they feel, why they feel, what they can do with all these feelings—all precursors to compassion.

The words I'm sorry" are more often about our need, not our child's. So what can you do to grow the genuine, integrity based, heartfelt ability to apologize?

1. Role model, always

Be genuine with your own apologies. Voice compassion for your child, others, and their situation.

2. Name and affirm feelings of all parties involved.

Just think, if your spouse, following the tearful yelling match with your teen, had said, "Honey that was really tough. Let me hold you for a minute while you pull yourself together," how might you now feel? How might that change the next step you took? I bet you'd feel connected, understood, cared for, and in a better position to now re-connect with your son and apologize for losing it. And it would have come from a genuine place within you.

3. Give choices or ideas.

"What can you do to help him feel better?"

"When you are ready to let her know you feel sorry, she'll appreciate it."

"Can you use your words or would you like to show her you feel sorry?"

Words, smiles, pats, sharing a toy, playing next to—these are all authentic ways kids can show they are sorry.

4. Notice what your child chooses or does on their own to express their apology and their feelings and name it.

"Thank you for offering your special stuffed guy to your friend. You wanted to help him feel better. What a nice thing to do to let him know you felt sorry."

And now you are helping your child learn a bit more about what healthy, caring relationships look like. Genuine apologies are on their way. It takes time to grow a child who can tap into their inner selves and respond with compassion and honesty in a difficult situation. Time, patience, and gentle guidance... trust this. "I'm sorry" will follow... and be truly meant.

Relationship building all around.

Originally published on Denali Parent Coaching.

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