Young people aged between 13 and 18 use digital devices for recreational purposes for approximately seven and a half hours a day. For school use, however, the average time comes down to one hour.
Data such as these catch the attention of Michel Desmurget, neuroscientist and research director at the National Institute of Health in France, and are present in his new book, “The Factory of Digital Assholes: The Dangers of Screens for Our Children” (Authentic Publisher ).
In the work, the neuroscientist deals with the dangers that the digital world brings to the learning process in children and adolescents and defends the reduction in the use of technological devices, addressing seven steps that could help in this process.
“As the well-known program Pisa (International Student Assessment Program) shows, for example, the more an educational system invests in digital technologies, the worse is the academic performance of its students in math, language and science”, says Desmurget in an email interview with sheet.
The author argues that products with digital screens are used by young people mainly for recreational purposes and very little for study. Audiovisual content, such as movies, series and reality shows, figure first in the order of consumption, followed by video games and, in adolescence, by social networks.
“Screen uses for homework represent only a marginal fraction of total screen time,” he says.
The habit causes problems for the learning process, such as attention deficit, concentration disorders and impulsiveness that reduce the school performance of young people.
A study in England found that digital consumption negatively impacted student grades on an exam taken for high school leaving certificates.
According to the survey, adhering to digital media for an hour a day during the previous 18 months of the exam would already reduce student performance when compared to not using the devices.
This scenario of over-used digital products for recreational purposes got even worse with Covid-19. “The pandemic did not change this imbalance [entre mais horas para lazer e poucas para estudo]. Quite the contrary, while school uses have increased, recreational use has exploded,” he says.
The coronavirus health crisis also confirmed other problems in digital education, such as the fact that few people have access to quality technological equipment, which can lead to a deepening of social inequalities.
For Desmurget, the closing of schools since last year has been a disaster and a tactic by governments “to save money by replacing expensive, skilled human time with cheap, automated computer time.”
The devaluation of teachers is even a point addressed in the book — the author argues that the shortage of qualified labor among education professionals is one of the reasons for the growth of digital education.
“In many countries, the shortage of qualified teachers is brutal (…). Digital education solves this problem”, he says.
However, this replacement of education professionals by technological instruments is an inadequate attempt, as examples demonstrate that face-to-face education with teachers is still superior to digital education.
He cites the case of France, where he resides. The country reopened its schools a few weeks after the suspension of classroom classes because, even with the investments that involved thousands of euros for the implementation of digital education, it was realized that the closing of schools had been a major pedagogical failure, according to the neuroscientist.
Another critique of Desmurget turns to the idea of ”digital natives”.
The term refers to the generation that was born immersed in the technological universe and, therefore, would have cognitive abilities more adapted to these technologies. For him, this is a fallacy, since there is no scientific evidence to confirm this.
According to the author, there is, however, research that sustains that most older people are able to fully adapt to digital tools. Therefore, the development of skills to use them is not reserved for the youngest.
Another example used to refute the “digital native” argument is also related to research. Studies emerged that suggested the increase in the brain of young video game players compared to those who did not play, which would confirm the idea of a superiority of “digital natives”.
Desmurget, however, claims that “‘a bigger brain’ is not a reliable indicator of intelligence” because any operation a person performs repeatedly can result in brain enlargement.
The neuroscientist cites research that linked the use of video games and televisions with a decrease in memory capacity. In this study, 13-year-olds were given the task of learning a list of words. Then, they were divided into three groups: one would watch a movie on television; another would play video games; and the third would perform any activity except the last two.
The other day, the number of words forgotten by the members of each group was measured. The result: the one who played the video game was the one who most forgot the elements, followed by the one who watched the movie.
Despite his criticisms, Desmurget’s work is not totally against the use of technological resources by children and adolescents. “It is obvious that students need to learn some basic computer skills (coding, using office software, dealing with data privacy, etc.).”
In order to deal with the situation and change the landscape of time devoted to digital devices, the author states that “the first (main) step is to involve children and, if possible, obtain their agreement on a series of fundamental rules.”
In this case, the author suggests seven rules that could reverse the addictive situation to which young people are subjected.
The first of these is the total suspension of the screens for children under six years old. “The absence of digital exposure during the first years of life has no negative impact in the short or long term,” says the expert in the book.
The other six initiatives would be for children over six years old and involve an average time of use between 30 and 60 minutes of devices with digital screens, use of one device at a time, prohibition of inappropriate content for minors, not using devices in rooms, before bed and before going to school.
More than just applying these actions, according to the author, it is important to involve young people so that they understand that “the rules are not intended to punish or frustrate them.”
Proof of this, says Desmurget, are studies carried out on how children and young people typically follow the rules when they understand why they are applied.