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Technology and the developing brain

20 Apr 2021

Over the last decade technology has evolved and while many young people are aware of issues associated with excessive smartphone use, they can still be reluctant to put them down, says one of Australia’s foremost experts in child development.

Dr Michael Nagel, USC Associate Professor in Child/Adolescent Development and Learning, recently spoke with career advisors, school leadership and teaching staff about the impact of technology on young people and how smartphones may be at the forefront of a growing number of development problems and mental health issues.

Dr Nagel shared results of a recent pilot study he was involved in which surveyed 1,300 young people in Australia and New Zealand about their behaviours towards smartphones.

“It was interesting how much they were already aware of the negative effects of too much screen time. They know it contributes greatly to sleep disruption, anxiety and bad grades in school. But while the kids knew it was creating problems for them, they were reluctant to take action and it was almost as if they would be happy if someone told them to put their phones away, so they didn’t have to make the decision themselves.”

Dr Nagel said all aspects of child development thrive with positive face-to-face social interactions and technology takes them away from this engagement.

“Smartphones are basically hand-held computers that offer immediate access to social media, gaming, adult content and more, presented in an addictive format that equates to brain hacking.

“What a lot of people don’t understand is that they actually hire experts in addictive behaviours to help create these products for your phone, and that makes it extremely hard to turn away from.”

Dr Nagel said he recommends parents consider screen time as a major public health issue and reducing it must become the new priority for child and adolescent health.

“We can’t tell a young person not to be on their device, if we’re doing the same thing. Be present and put your device away. Don’t expect change if you’re not willing to change.”

“Parents who want to help restrict screen time need to set boundaries and parameters from a young age. If your kids have already grown up with screens, you can find a middle ground, like turning off devices early in the evening. But parents need to do it too,” he said.

Dr Nagel said it helped to promote activities that take the family away from devices, such as tech-free meal times, social occasions together, and getting outdoors and playing sports.

Dr Mike Nagel’s top tips to gain control over your smartphone

  • Turn off all notifications, except those from people.
  • Take social media off the phone. You'll likely be more intentional about when and where you dip into Facebook and Instagram if you only do it on a computer.
  • Charge the phone outside of the bedroom. It's so easy to roll over, tap snooze on your buzzing phone, and delve right into the latest news or last night's emails, but is that really the habit you want to create?
  • Go cold turkey. This one is tough, but effective! If you really want to use your phone less, remove all social media and game apps from your phone
About Dr Michael Nagel

Dr Michael Nagel is an Associate Professor at USC where he teaches and researches in the areas of cognition, human development, behaviour and learning. He is the author of 16 books on child development and learning used by teachers and parents in over 20 countries and has delivered over 300 workshops and seminars for parents and teachers nationally and internationally. Nominated as Australian Lecturer of the Year each year since 2010, Dr Nagel has been an invited guest on ‘TV New Zealand Breakfast’, ‘Canada AM’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘A Current Affair’ and ‘The Project’.

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