An engaging topic of discussion between parents and school authorities these days is whether children should be allowed to carry smartphones to school. While both groups recognise that it is inevitable for children to freely use these gadgets sooner or later, the question really is, when is the right age to do so.
Some members of both groups favour children of grades 6 to 8 to use smartphones. Their main consideration is that children should be in touch with the technology of the time. If they are exposed to it early on, they may learn how to deal with it and make it a part of their lives.
Others, however, feel this may be too early still. These are twelve-year-olds in question, and there are several factors that should be carefully considered before arriving at a decision.
Research indicates that the human brain shows two super-bursts of development. One is early on, from birth till when the child is a few years old. The other is around adolescence. These are crucial years, since the brain absorbs intensely from the environment it is exposed to, and is shaped accordingly.
If the environment is restful, children will learn to be still and stable within. The brain will lay its circuits and responses accordingly. The ability to wilfully concentrate on things that need attention, the ability to absorb with openness, to listen and to respect—all such is given a chance in these years.
However, if the mind is constantly distracted at this point in time, then the circuits and pathways of neurons will form accordingly. Reactions will be instant, but not necessarily deep or stable. When the mind flits about unnecessarily, pulled in different directions at one time, memory is affected. Additionally, the ability to think things through would not take root.
What is affected most, though, is the emotional landscape. Smartphones expose children to social media. It throws them into an arena that is uncensored, aggressive and even violent. Children have no control over their actions and reactions, and conversations on such platforms usually spiral out of control.
Psychologists and psychiatrists in the US are inundated with young children, barely teenagers, suffering from anxiety from being pulled in too many different directions from too much information, as well as from depression, as a consequence of cyber-bullying.
This is a heavy price to pay. Even with all its plasticity, a brain affected by depression and anxiety changes in a way that can take a lot to fix. The younger the brain is, the more impressionable it is. Early emotional memories, if unpleasant, are the most difficult to correct and cope with through sometimes an entire lifetime.
The body is affected as well. A distracted mind is unmindful about how to eat. Furthermore, if the mind is anxious, digestion is the first to be impacted. Sleep is affected. The nervous system tends to remain under stress at a time when it should be building its strength. Immunity is weakened as a result. The body becomes easily prone to allergies and other agents of disease.
At a time when children should be building physical health, emotional stability and inner poise from a restful routine and loving care, we seem to be exposing them to tools that are too powerful, in speed and aggression, for them to handle. The result is often a distracted mind and an anxious body. That is the worst legacy we can bequeath our young ones.