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This is your brain on screens

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“It’s the equivalent of driving a car before seatbelts,” a friend said. We were discussing the screen revolution that has bombarded contemporary culture, particularly its young people.

“It’s like one of my wife’s baby pictures,” he continued. “There’s an ashtray on the table between her crib and the rocking chair. One day we’ll think of giving a 13-year-old an Instagram page in the same way.”

In defense of those who thought unbridled Internet access for teenagers was a good idea, plenty of people once drank Dr. Peppers at 10, 2 and 4.

As awareness of technology’s effects increases, so do digital detoxes. One friend uses his “smartphone” during the work week because his employer requires it. On weekends, he unplugs with a flip or “dumbphone.”

That’s actually smart, says Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.”

“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning,” Carr writes.

“The Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”

It’s ironic that parents give kids smartphones in the name of safety. It’s also ironic that all the proverbial driving without seat belts is causing less actual driving.

Many teenagers are delaying getting their licenses because they feel connected enough with their phones.

Not my son. One night last week, he borrowed my car for a couple of hours after work. I accidentally left my smartphone in the vehicle.

The miscue interrupted my fairly regular practice: mindlessly check email or social media a few times throughout the evening. It’s particularly striking how much I want to check my work email right when I get home from work.

By the time my son returned, I was so enthralled with my newfound mental space that I left my phone in the car until the next morning. Exhilarating is probably too strong of a word, but you get the point.

Like moths to flames, humans are drawn to the flicker of screens.

“The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it,” Carr writes. “Frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory and make us tense and anxious.”

The more devices a generous in-law bequeaths to my children, the more I have to request downtime.

“Screens off!” I’ll say and, “Let’s live our lives, not theirs.”

Phone manufacturers try to help. Apple released more parental controls in a recent system update.

But staying ahead of digital natives is challenging. It turns out a user can manually “turn back the clock” on an Apple iPhone to allow more “uptime.”

Open communication and supportive relationships are critical. It’s best to aim for a kid’s heart and try to get buy-in for the growing logic of limitations.

Following through with guardrails like app, game, website and time restrictions is not easy. The surge is relentless.

A medical doctor recently showed me another trick recently: how to change a smartphone screen to black and white.

Bright colors make screens more addictive by increasing dopamine levels in the brain, he said.

I’m giving it a shot, but it’s probably one seat belt my kids will squirm out of.

Kevin Thompson writes regularly for The Boerne Star. Reach him at