“That will throw back a whole generation to the stone age”

June 2019

Children should be kept away from digital media until the age of twelve. Interview with the neurobiologist Gertraud Teuchert-Noodt.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Erziehungskunst | Is the human brain prepared for digitalisation? 

Getraud Teuchert-Noodt | Yes, it has been for at least the last three thousand years from when the Phoenicians invented the alphabet. As a result, educating children to read, write and do arithmetic was able to become a successful cultural technique – albeit only in the last three hundred years. The sensorimotor fields of the child’s brain maturing in a defined timeframe are optimally structured. Only the fully matured primary and secondary nerve networks in these fields of the cortex allow the adult to become creative in abstract patterns of thinking and, indeed, also to use digital media in a meaningful way and perhaps also write programs and algorithms themselves.  

It is a fallacy to assume that – because of the minimal technical effort – the modern child can simply follow adults in learning how to handle digital media. According to what we currently know in brain research, it is not possible to prepare the child’s brain to handle the content of digital media in a sensible way even if we had another thousand years. Because in order for human beings to learn to think, first and second order networks of nerves have to mature through internally controlled processes in the child’s cortex over a long period of time. Digital media accelerate this maturing process to such an extent that we can refer to it as crisis maturing which causes irreversible addiction. 

It will catapult a whole generation of children back into the Stone Age if we continue along this route. For the first time in human history, we are at risk of being deprived of the neural foundation which is absolutely necessary for the thought processes.  

EK | Are there ways of dealing with digitalisation in a sensible way?

GTN | Dealing with digital media in a sensible way requires adults to cultivate a conscious interaction with the least possible use of media in private life and not using them at all in non-digital leisure time. With regard to children and adolescents, however, “dealing with digital media in a sensible way” represents an even greater challenge. The most sensible thing is if parents can persuade their children to do completely without any electronics and if digital media disappear completely from nursery and primary school. 

We can cite two reasons here: children’s brains require physical movement to anchor experiences of space and time in the brain. This happens through the organ of equilibrium (vestibular system) which matures at a very early stage as well as the neuromuscular and neurotendinous spindles of the musculoskeletal system. In this context the three spatial levels given in our lifeworld are programmed in the cerebellum into three associated levels of connection. Walking, climbing, tumbling and balancing are and remain the initial stimulants without which the connections in the cerebellum cannot develop normally. The more children move, the better their brain matures. For these experiences in early childhood are also reflected in a linear fashion in the degree of differentiation in higher downstream motor circuits. In addition, painting, kneading and handicraft work create networks in the sensorimotor association fields of the cortex and render more precise connections. Also children always being on the go in their play behaviour is part of cognitive and emotional maturing and stimulates complex operations such as alertness, power of judgement and social behaviour.  

When artificial intelligence researchers believe that they can give all these vital functions to the child from birth with the gift of a smartphone, then they are abolishing themselves in the medium term. 

Treacherous risks threatening the brain of the child are additionally lurking at the level of the limbic system  which controls emotions and drives. We are talking about addiction: it is generally assumed that digital addiction, as a non-substance dependency, is somehow different and perhaps less harmful than drug addiction. This is an error! In both instances excessive amounts of the brain’s own opiates are released in the same place in the limbic system, physiologically stabilising a self-reinforcing closed circuit – a “reward system”. This sets a self-sustaining vicious circle in motion. For children there is no possibility of self-control, they become helpless prisoners of themselves. Not until adolescence can the progressively maturing brain cooperate with the limbic circuit in something approaching control and handle media in a meaningful way.  

EK | How does the human brain develop and what crucially influences the way it matures? 

GTN | Looked at biologically, Homo sapiens occupies its ecological niche due to a newly arisen structure of its own in the brain, the frontal lobe. It puts human beings in a position superior to all other living creatures of being able creatively to build a new world in time and space which has not existed until then, make themselves at home in it, produce civilisations and pass them on to future generations. The existence of human beings was and is dependent on this spatiotemporal ecological niche. Digital media are an insidious attack on our life aspirations. That is why each human child must develop and strengthen their frontal lobe in order to be able to develop life strategies of their own and keep adapting them to the demands of daily life. 

The digital teaching of children will not happen without the loss of cognitive functional maturity. The developing functional performance of the child’s frontal lobe is not derived directly from a genetic programme. It has to be structurally integrated from scratch into the available neural networks. That is what the uniquely long childhood and adolescent phase of the human species is for. Just imagine what it means when children and adolescents are subject to digital outside control and grow up with little empathy and no social and historical awareness; when they don’t practise memory performance and train their thinking and skill with numbers but use digital aids and store things in clouds instead of abundantly populating the cortical areas of their brain with experiences.  

The digitally tethered school child is deprived of the opportunity to accomplish the necessary process of cutting the mental and emotional umbilical cord with the mother and developing independence. This will lead to psychological destabilisation, loss of inner freedom, anxieties and aggression.

If all mental effort is left to the “virtual assistant”, many capacities of the brain wither away, such as anticipatory actions in working life, pleasure, interest and imagination. Digital media automatically over-accelerate physiological processes in the brain, impede neuronal sequencing and the neurochemical communication between cell groups which serves to transmit excitation patterns to remote networks of nerves. Cognitive impotence is not something that most people want to boast about. Yet AI research is moving steadily towards subjecting the brain physiologically to a non-invasive lobotomy in digitalised societies and – voluntarily (!) – disempowering the human being.  

EK | Why is it so important that smartphones should be kept away from small children? 

GTN | If small children are already using smartphones, tablets or similar devices they are automatically being drawn into dependency. This happens without the children noticing and weakens the reward system for learning to speak, write and learn. Learning these skills can only be made up in later development with great difficulty because the developmental window has closed. The small child is subject to intrinsic permanent stress. 

Two aspects should additionally be taken into account: 1. It is hardly possible to restrict the media consumption of a child to half an hour per day in the longer term. We know, after all, that a tiny glass of alcohol per day would be sufficient to turn a child into an alcoholic. 2. The brain of the small child, wholly designed for imitation, is particularly at risk when it observes the constant use of digital media by the parents. Parents can only return to being a model and avoid their child becoming addicted if they themselves as far as possible stop using smartphones, etc. in their private life.  

EK | Movement, going for a walk – without smartphone – is important to generate ideas. What happens in the brain? 

GTN | The brain is programmed for motor activity throughout life which is fed into it together with sensory perceptions and the locomotor system. When sitting at your desk, the brain’s own activities are relocated completely to the highest association areas. A person can concentrate and think well. But the capacities required for that, controlled by transmitters, are however limited, recovery phases are required and movement such as going for a walk has a particularly positive effect. Because slow, rhythmical physical movement and casual, subliminal sensory impressions stimulate the whole of the brain and create new order in the neuronal activities in the background. The rhythmical, slow oscillation of a stride particularly supports the holistic stimulation of the brain. 

EK | Is it better to read texts on paper than a screen? 

GTN | It is not just the sensorimotor association areas in the parietal and occipital cortex which are required for the deeper reading of a text. But that is what they eye focuses on particularly when reading on a screen. In doing so, it makes use primarily of a purely serial transmission of stimuli in the cortex, that is, “mechanical” reading with a restricted mental range of vision. The text is read quickly and fleetingly, “swiping” from one page to the next on the tablet. But reading a text also simultaneously involves – and that is what text on paper provides – an assessment of form and content. We might say that multitasking is a systemic property of the brain to which it has easier access when reading a text on paper.  

Because alongside the serial circuits, parallel ones are also included and brief partial aspects are redundantly read subliminally. That supports a deeper engagement with the content. In addition, the so-called working memory in the frontal lobe is involved in permitting a conscious presence, lasting a few seconds, which allows associative activities to brush across both hemispheres – and thus also all of the paper. The eye can extensively and liberally pause in the text on the paper. This is important because the visual cortex is dependent on working together spatially and temporally with the subsystems of the brain responsible for concentration and memory.  

Spatially this relates to the vertical and horizontal ordering of the functional modules in the hierarchically structured cortical areas which are created and adapted in learning to read.  

Temporally it relates to immediate sequencing with inbuilt delay sequences which permit the development of networks and thinking activity in the millisecond range. When we scroll, this spatiotemporal structure is not even addressed; e-paper and e-books are also merely of value for quick information but not for the neuronal integration of content.   

EK | How do we get out of this dilemma? 

GTN | There wouldn’t be a dilemma if people acted in line with their destination and ability and gave highest priority to their mind, reason and responsibility and didn’t let themselves be used by digital media. They should rather use the latter as a tool. That would be a brief summary of the most recent findings in brain and evolutionary research.  

But it does not do full justice to the acuteness of the situation in view of the split which is opening up between the digital world and the human brain, specifically between economic profit-oriented thinking and human reason, between an informed minority and an uninformed majority in our society.

A concrete suggestion would be to introduce a digital “driving licence”: children up to the age of 12 should be kept away from digital media altogether – just like from the wheel of a car. The alternative provision of hiking, playing and sport must be expanded. From age 12, an initial driving licence could be introduced in schools and then from age 16 a more advanced one.  

For parents of small children, it should hold that they too forego digital media as far as possible in private life and also keep other stress factors at a minimum; that would free them from much trouble and worry, improve school performance and provide the opportunity for a new generation to grow up which has a sovereign command of the media.  

The interview was conducted by Johanna Wenninger-Muhr, www.visionsblog.info