WELLBEING

Mindfulness in a Digital World

By Dr Kristy Goodwin

Posted  June 28 2016 | 0 Shares

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Mindfulness in a Digital World

Today’s kids – our digital natives, – are growing up surrounded by screens. They learn to tap, swipe, and pinch before they’ve mastered many of their basic physical milestones such as gripping a pencil or tying their shoelaces. Their world is flashing, beeping and pinging.

In some instances, this is having a profound impact on their attention and emotional wellbeing. When children are spending too much time with screens, their nervous system is constantly bombarded by a barrage of sensory input. It’s a bit like a sensory smorgasbord – there are sounds, lights, and tactile responses that their brain needs to process.  This constant sensory input affects the brain in more ways the one: the brain is depleting its supplies of glucose, and is also releasing cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’).  This results in mental fatigue.

Whilst the brain is capable of processing much of this sensory information for short periods of time, if children are constantly tethered to technology, or dunked in the digital stream too young (there’s little evidence of any benefit of introducing screens before 2 -3 years of age*), then this can have implications on their health and wellbeing.  Their brains and bodies simply can’t cope with this incessant sensory overload.

Mindfulness training, however, is proving to be the perfect anecdote to this busy, buzzing digital world in which our kids are being introduced.

What is mindfulness training?

Mindfulness is a type of mediation where we teach our children to focus their attention on the present moment. When they’re mindful, they’re not thinking about what they were crafting in Minecraft half an hour ago, or what they want to post on social media when they get home from school. They’re not diverting their attention from playing or having a discussion with someone, just because their mum receives a social media notification on her phone. They’re experiencing the present moment, whether they’re with or without a screen.

Why is mindfulness important in the digital age?

Attention management is the most important skill that we can cultivate in our children today, especially since they will grow up in a digital-heavy society. If children cannot manage their attention, they’ll become swamped and lost in the ‘digital world’, where there is a constant barrage of sensory seductions vying for their attention.  Notifications, sound effects, flashes, and alerts all distract children from the task at hand.

When our children’s attention wanders (and it does this constantly in a digital world where there’s sensory seductions everywhere they turn) and they bring it back to the present moment, this activates the prefrontal cortex in the brain. It’s this prefrontal cortex, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘CEO’ of the brain, or the ‘air-traffic control system’, which is responsible for children’s higher order thinking skills.

In particular, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for the development of executive function skills. These executive function skills range include:

  1. Impulse control
  2. Working memory
  3. Mental flexibility

Children need to strengthen this part of the brain to thrive in our digital-heavy world. Luckily, the good news is that we can strengthen children’s prefrontal cortex through mindfulness exercises.

Benefits of mindfulness

Children, parents, and educators often report that children appear calmer after meditation or mindfulness practices. Research** is showing that mindfulness improves both physical and mental health and also improves cognitive capabilities. At this stage, the research with children shows that the benefits of mindfulness practices include greater concentration and focus, reduced stress and anxiety, an improved ability to make faster decisions and improved memory skills. These are all part of the suite of executive function skills.

While the research on the effectiveness of mindfulness for children is still in its infancy, the tentative findings from neuroscience and brain imaging is that mindfulness training reliably and profoundly alters the brain architecture, and improves the quality of thoughts and feelings. In particular, it helps children to manage their impulses and direct their attention.

Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness training help children stay in touch with their experiences, and live in the present moment.  Cultivating awareness as well as the ability to sit in stillness and silence will be critical for today’s children who will live in a busy, technology-focused world.

Essentially, mindfulness trains the brain to focus. It develops our kids’ ‘attention muscle’.

Technological tools for mindfulness

There are, ironically, some brilliant apps and online tools that teach children mindfulness (and meditation). It’s not imperative that they use technology to access mindfulness training, but these are great compensatory tools for our kids it there are no local classes or instructors to personally teach them.

  •  Smiling Mind – this app provides guided meditations for children aged 7 years to adults.
  •  Mindfulness for Children – an app that provides meditation exercises specifically for children.
  • Momentous Institute – create a range of apps including ‘Breathing Bubbles’, ‘Settle Your Glitter’ and ‘Pass the Drop’ which provide visual cues to help children deal with their emotions.
  • Drift Away – this app allows children to guide a bubble through a scenic landscape.

There’s also a wealth of free YouTube videos and websites dedicated to this area and this is likely to continue to expand, given the increased awareness of the importance of mindfulness and meditation training. These online mindfulness meditation trainings are a great way to utilise technology to teach mindfulness.

Whilst these apps and websites can certainly provide some basic training and support for teaching our children mindfulness, we can’t underestimate the importance of simply unplugging our kids from the busy, digital world. They need outdoor, unstructured play every day (rain, hail or shine). They need regular time to interact and socialise (real face-time with people). They need green-time (time in nature) as it offers a much slower pace of sensory input. They need opportunities to simply slow down. They need time to be bored!

*Current screen-time guidelines propose that children under the age of 2 years don’t use screens. I don’t necessarily endorse these guidelines as it’s often unrealistic in the digital age. With children under 2 years, parents and educators should try to co-view when using screens, use them for very short and intentional periods of time and look for ways to extend learning off the screen.

 

 

Reviewed by Dr Kristy Goodwin 28 June 2016 references
  • current version

  • PEER REVIEWER

  • document id

  • next review

This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

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Mindfulness in a Digital World

WELLBEING

By Dr Kristy Goodwin

Mindfulness in a Digital World

Today’s kids – our digital natives, – are growing up surrounded by screens. They learn to tap, swipe, and pinch before they’ve mastered many of their basic physical milestones such as gripping a pencil or tying their shoelaces. Their world is flashing, beeping and pinging.

In some instances, this is having a profound impact on their attention and emotional wellbeing. When children are spending too much time with screens, their nervous system is constantly bombarded by a barrage of sensory input. It’s a bit like a sensory smorgasbord – there are sounds, lights, and tactile responses that their brain needs to process.  This constant sensory input affects the brain in more ways the one: the brain is depleting its supplies of glucose, and is also releasing cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’).  This results in mental fatigue.

Whilst the brain is capable of processing much of this sensory information for short periods of time, if children are constantly tethered to technology, or dunked in the digital stream too young (there’s little evidence of any benefit of introducing screens before 2 -3 years of age*), then this can have implications on their health and wellbeing.  Their brains and bodies simply can’t cope with this incessant sensory overload.

Mindfulness training, however, is proving to be the perfect anecdote to this busy, buzzing digital world in which our kids are being introduced.

What is mindfulness training?

Mindfulness is a type of mediation where we teach our children to focus their attention on the present moment. When they’re mindful, they’re not thinking about what they were crafting in Minecraft half an hour ago, or what they want to post on social media when they get home from school. They’re not diverting their attention from playing or having a discussion with someone, just because their mum receives a social media notification on her phone. They’re experiencing the present moment, whether they’re with or without a screen.

Why is mindfulness important in the digital age?

Attention management is the most important skill that we can cultivate in our children today, especially since they will grow up in a digital-heavy society. If children cannot manage their attention, they’ll become swamped and lost in the ‘digital world’, where there is a constant barrage of sensory seductions vying for their attention.  Notifications, sound effects, flashes, and alerts all distract children from the task at hand.

When our children’s attention wanders (and it does this constantly in a digital world where there’s sensory seductions everywhere they turn) and they bring it back to the present moment, this activates the prefrontal cortex in the brain. It’s this prefrontal cortex, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘CEO’ of the brain, or the ‘air-traffic control system’, which is responsible for children’s higher order thinking skills.

In particular, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for the development of executive function skills. These executive function skills range include:

  1. Impulse control
  2. Working memory
  3. Mental flexibility

Children need to strengthen this part of the brain to thrive in our digital-heavy world. Luckily, the good news is that we can strengthen children’s prefrontal cortex through mindfulness exercises.

Benefits of mindfulness

Children, parents, and educators often report that children appear calmer after meditation or mindfulness practices. Research** is showing that mindfulness improves both physical and mental health and also improves cognitive capabilities. At this stage, the research with children shows that the benefits of mindfulness practices include greater concentration and focus, reduced stress and anxiety, an improved ability to make faster decisions and improved memory skills. These are all part of the suite of executive function skills.

While the research on the effectiveness of mindfulness for children is still in its infancy, the tentative findings from neuroscience and brain imaging is that mindfulness training reliably and profoundly alters the brain architecture, and improves the quality of thoughts and feelings. In particular, it helps children to manage their impulses and direct their attention.

Research has shown that meditation and mindfulness training help children stay in touch with their experiences, and live in the present moment.  Cultivating awareness as well as the ability to sit in stillness and silence will be critical for today’s children who will live in a busy, technology-focused world.

Essentially, mindfulness trains the brain to focus. It develops our kids’ ‘attention muscle’.

Technological tools for mindfulness

There are, ironically, some brilliant apps and online tools that teach children mindfulness (and meditation). It’s not imperative that they use technology to access mindfulness training, but these are great compensatory tools for our kids it there are no local classes or instructors to personally teach them.

  •  Smiling Mind – this app provides guided meditations for children aged 7 years to adults.
  •  Mindfulness for Children – an app that provides meditation exercises specifically for children.
  • Momentous Institute – create a range of apps including ‘Breathing Bubbles’, ‘Settle Your Glitter’ and ‘Pass the Drop’ which provide visual cues to help children deal with their emotions.
  • Drift Away – this app allows children to guide a bubble through a scenic landscape.

There’s also a wealth of free YouTube videos and websites dedicated to this area and this is likely to continue to expand, given the increased awareness of the importance of mindfulness and meditation training. These online mindfulness meditation trainings are a great way to utilise technology to teach mindfulness.

Whilst these apps and websites can certainly provide some basic training and support for teaching our children mindfulness, we can’t underestimate the importance of simply unplugging our kids from the busy, digital world. They need outdoor, unstructured play every day (rain, hail or shine). They need regular time to interact and socialise (real face-time with people). They need green-time (time in nature) as it offers a much slower pace of sensory input. They need opportunities to simply slow down. They need time to be bored!

*Current screen-time guidelines propose that children under the age of 2 years don’t use screens. I don’t necessarily endorse these guidelines as it’s often unrealistic in the digital age. With children under 2 years, parents and educators should try to co-view when using screens, use them for very short and intentional periods of time and look for ways to extend learning off the screen.

 

 

Reviewed by Lisa Kelly 28 June 2016
references
  • current version

  • PEER REVIEWER

  • Doc id

  • next review

This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

make a comment

1 comments

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MEET THE EXPERTS

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