Attention, sleep and language disorders…” The multiplication of screens is causing large-scale decerebration.
Interview with neuroscientist Michedl Desmurget, author of the book “The Factory of Digital Assholes”.
For neuroscientist Michedl Desmurget, leaving children and teenagers in front of screens is an abuse. She alerts us to what she considers a serious public health problem.
Michel Desmurget leads a research team on brain plasticity at the CNRS – French National Center for Scientific Research. Published in 2019 “La Fabrique du cretino digital. Les hazards des écrans pour nos enfants“, published in Spanish by Editora Planeta, under the title “The Digital Factory of Assholes“.
Based on the available scientific literature, the neuroscientist details the effects of the diffusion of digital tools on children’s cognition, behavior and well-being.
Q: In your book, you talk about the different types of classic screens, video games, etc. Which is the most harmful for the child?
Michel Desmurget: It is the convergence of them all. Numerous studies demonstrate the impact of screens, whatever they are, on delays in language, sleep and attention development. The brain – especially when it’s still developing – wasn’t designed to withstand this sensory bombardment.
What data is there on screen time?
Michel Desmurget: Screen time is not just excessive, but extravagant. In the United States, it’s nearly three hours a day at age 3, four and a half hours between ages 8 and 12, and six and a half hours between ages 13 and 18. In France, children aged 6 to 17 spent an average of four hours and 11 minutes a day in front of a screen in 2015, according to data the study ANDsteban, produced by Santé France publishing house. Other data differ slightly, but all are in equivalent ranges and, in all cases, in very high proportions. Only between 6% and 10% of children are unaffected.
Is it so serious?
Michel Desmurget: Before the age of six, screens have been shown to have an effect from fifteen minutes a day. In the first five or six years of life, every minute counts: it is an absolutely unique period of brain development, learning and plasticity that will not be repeated!
From the age of six, up to half an hour or even an hour of consumption per day, there are no measurable effects, as long as the content consulted is adequate and that this activity does not affect sleep. But we are much further away. What’s happening now is an unprecedented experiment in large-scale decerebration.
Is the average level of consumption among teenagers an issue?
Michel Desmurget: We can really talk about an epidemic among teenagers; It is a huge public health problem. All the literature points to the harmful effects of screens on concentration. Whatever the content, whatever the medium, the brain was not designed for these exogenous demands. Numerous studies show increased risks of depression, anxiety and suicide linked to screen time.
Finally, the screens also contribute to the dissemination of risk content about drugs, tobacco or sexuality. In the case of adolescents, they occupy between 40% and 50% of waking time; one of the main effects is on sleep.
According to the latest statistics, most teenagers have a sleep debt, a key activity. In large part, this debt is linked to digital use, which shifts sleep time (the time offered to screens has to be occupied somewhere) and delays falling asleep (the light emitted by screens interferes with the secretion of melatonin, the hormone of sleep).
You mention a relationship between the use of screens and a decrease in cognitive ability, are you serious?
Michel Desmurget: Remember that there is a strong link between language richness and intellectual performance. Robert Sternberg, professor of cognitive psychology at Yale University, did not say that “Vocabulary is probably the best indicator of a person’s general level of intelligence.“?
Screens interfere with the development of our verbal skills, even if there are other causes, whether academic (reduced number of school hours) or environmental (endocrine disruptors). For example, in an 18-month-old child, every additional half hour spent with a mobile device multiplies the probability of observing language delays by 2.5. Likewise, the more time children spend in front of a screen, the less exposed they are to the benefits of writing and reading.