Anyone who has posted, emailed, or tweeted something they think is especially clever, knows the feeling. The drive for feedback, the emotional need that pushes us to keep refreshing our screens to see if someone out there has read our words and responded.
The happy little pings and beeps our devices give us when we get messages (or do well in electronic games) are addictive — literally. They trigger the release of dopamine, a neurochemical associated with both pleasure and addiction. Essential for reward-driven learning, dopamine is one of the most power brain chemicals we have. Stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine act on the dopamine system. ADHD appears to be associated with decreased dopamine and ADHD drugs stimulate increased dopamine. The dopamine driven need for constant electronic feedback and stimulation can impact productivity, happiness, and personal relationships.
As awareness about the brain downside of digital devices grows, even technology leaders in Silicon Valley are holding conferences on how to pursue life balance in the digital age. They are exploring how to balance their own lives with meditation, writing, deep breathing, yoga, and even turning their phones off. They are trying to help people find their own internal compasses for keeping their corporeal and their digital lives in balance. We need to help our kids find the same balance.
Wonderful electronic devices fill our lives and aren’t going away. Online learning, computers, and iPads in schools are expanding exponentially. As digital learning becomes more common in our schools, it becomes more and more important to teach students how to balance their lives and when to take a break. Just like technology employees, our students need time to walk away from the electronics, get some fresh air, and talk with a person in the flesh. We need to start helping kids find their own balance by revamping physical education programs to include activities like yoga. We need to make recess mandatory, every day, for all students. Too often we view recess as an optional privilege. Recess appears to be the only flexible part of the school day and is lost to makeup tests or as a punishment for students who have misbehaved. This needs to stop.
If we are to teach kids how to care for their bodies and brains, we need to place a priority on making sure we allow them to balance their lives both at home and at school. Students that have been out of school due to illness or other reasons may have a stronger need than usual for recess and the physical and mental break it provides. Students that misbehaved are often boys that really need to get out of the classroom, out of the building, and move their large muscles. Punishing students by removing the “privilege” of recess is completely counterproductive and can negatively impact students’ ability to focus, behave, and learn for the remainder of the school day. Exercise improves brain function and health and recess is an essential part of school day academics. Instead of denying recess to students who have a difficult time in class, we should give them more recess. They would probably get more out of classroom time if, when their attention started to wander, they took an active, 10-minute break. During the break they could run a lap around the school, get some water and breathe some fresh air. (In cold places with inclement weather, they could clear their minds by quietly speed walking the school hallways.)
As adults, we all know that to keep our lives in balance and feel our best emotionally, intellectually, and physically, some of us need more physical activity than others. Some of us get a bit twitchy if we haven’t had our daily exercise while other of us can go days or weeks without any noticeable emotional toil from a more sedentary lifestyle. The same is true for our kids. Some of them have a nature balance that requires more physical activity. Our schools should recognize this and start helping students learn to listen to their own brains and bodies. Productivity and happiness are not mutually exclusive. Both increases when people’s lives are in balance. Silicon Valley recognizes it, our schools should as well.