Digital tech and education – part 2

May 18, 2024

Did you know that the digital technology that’s so commonly used in education – at home and school, not to mention everywhere else – is not just having harmful effects on our children, but it’s interfering with their ability to learn, too?

These are the conclusions of Professor Tom Butler, from University College in Cork, who conducted an extensive review of the latest research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and education.

Recently we discovered whether digital devices trumped paper and pens in the learning stakes. We also saw the effects of device use on students’ sleep, vision and attention.

This week we take a look at what Professor Butler has to say about the effects of digital technology on the brain and learning outcomes – and see his suggestions about what can be done to mitigate the risks.

Effects on the brain

Alarmingly, Butler says that using digital devices can negatively affect brain function. As we’ve seen it can impair memory and cognition, but it can also affect brain chemistry, contribute to psychological problems and affect general well-being.

Multi-tasking on digital devices increases the production of cortisol (a stress hormone) and adrenaline (a fight-or-flight hormone). ‘This is a potent chemical cocktail that can overstimulate a student’s brain, reduce clarity of thought, and produce muddled thinking,’ Butler says.

The distracting nature of technology appeals to the prefrontal cortex of the brain that is attracted to novelty and reward. Butler quotes D J Levitin who says, “We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty-seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task.”

Brain plasticity (adaptability) means that negative behaviours like these can physically rewire the brain’s circuitry, thus entrenching the behaviours.

And causing addiction.

Internet addiction is a huge problem, with studies showing that up to 50% of students are affected. Butler cites evidence showing that ‘pathological internet use’ is linked with depression and ADHD. Further, he says that ‘high levels of ST [screen time] is now considered an independent risk factor in heart disease, poor development outcomes among children, adult disease, and untimely death.’

Learning outcomes

Digital technologies have been widely used in classrooms for many years. But where are the benefits?

Butler believes they are minimal. ‘Digital Technology applications may develop very narrow, non-transferable, cognitive and/or motor skills in children at the expense of more important reading, mathematical skills, interpersonal and problem-solving skills,’ he says.

He reveals that many executives from large companies such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Intel send their children to Waldorf Schools where children are discouraged from using Digital Technology at home or school before the age of 12.

Even though educators often cite studies showing the advantages of digital technology for education, Butler says that many of those are deeply flawed or have not been peer-reviewed.

What should we do?

Butler shares the view that children under 12 should not be using screen-based technologies at school.

He says, ‘Given what neuroscientists have discovered about the dysfunctional and addictive effects of screen-based applications on the human brain, providing children and adolescents with smartphones or tablets is akin to giving them a cannabis plant with lots of fertilizer.’

He has some further recommendations for parents and educators such as:

  • avoiding the use of tablets and laptops at home and school

  • using screen-based devices for no more than an hour each evening

  • avoiding the use of e-books

  • where e-books must be used, using those with reflected (rather than LED) lighting

  • using paper and pen in class

  • educating students about the problems of digital technology.

Butler says that this evidence should let educators pause for thought.

Let’s hope that they think hard and long and respond to the problems that are impairing the learning and well-being of our children and potentially compromising their futures.

Butler, T. (2024, March 29). A Critical Review of Digital Technology in Education: A Pause for Thought in 2024. SocArXiv 

You can see part 1 of this article here.

Radiation-free internet

Set up radiation-free modems/routers for your family to use computers, laptops, devices and landline phone without any exposure to radiofrequency/wireless radiation at all.

What else can you do?

  • forward this email to others, including parents and educators, to inform them, too.