Desmurget: School digitization dangerous for children

Courtesy of Michel Desmurget
Michel Desmurget

The rapid digitization of learning systems is underway in Japan. To ensure education amid the COVID-19 crisis, students now have their own PCs and tablets. A complete shift from paper textbooks to digital textbooks is also being considered. However, in countries that have implemented digitization to a greater degree than Japan, contrary views have emerged. In an exclusive interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dr. Michel Desmurget, a French neuroscientist and author of the book “Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children,” published as “Digital Baka” in Japanese, warns about the negative effects of digitization on children.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What inspired you to write the book “Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children”?

Desmurget: It was anger. I was angry. I am working in a neurosurgery department. Fifteen years or more ago, we decided to remove television screens from the rooms of the children after brain surgery because we thought it would be better for them. Before doing it, I looked at the literature and found that there was a huge discrepancy between what you can find in the scientific literature and what you can read in the media. I thought we were doing something unfair to children.

Q: You say the amount of time people spend looking at TV and PC screens, or screen time, has something to do with the brain.

A: My research area is brain plasticity. We thought that screen time is related to plasticity because it affects the development of the brain. We found that the impact of the screen on brain plasticity is huge.

Q: What was the response from readers?

A: The book has been published in 12 countries: France, England, Japan, Italy, Spain, Romania, Turkey, China, Portugal, Brazil, Ukraine and Russia. I was expecting very aggressive responses, but it’s not what I got. I got a lot of responses from parents, teachers, pediatricians and other people working with children. These people are told that children can be creative and can learn how to concentrate with computers and video games. But they say that is not what they observe. They found in the book some scientific validations of what they see in their daily practice, such as children’s language problems, an increase of impulsivity, and difficulty to concentrate at school.

Q: In Japan, a PC is provided to every elementary and junior high school student.

A: I don’t understand why you do that now. A lot of countries started that 20 years ago or more, distributing computers and tablets to children, and the most positive literature shows it has no effect. It’s just a loss of money.

In France, the Court of Accounts, which checks whether state money is properly spent, said in a report that it is just a shame to have spent so much money for nothing, with no pedagogical, educational impact. In Spain, the result of distributing PCs was a drop in school achievement in all the academic disciplines including Spanish, English, mathematics and science.

We can all agree that the digital revolution has brought some good things with it. But when you put PCs and tablets in the hands of children, they don’t use it for what you think they should use it. They use it mostly for entertainment, to watch television, Netflix, YouTube videos, music clips, or to play video games. Teenagers use it for social network services such as Instagram and TikTok.

In France, schools have around 900 hours a year. The screen time for children around 8 or 9 is almost five hours a day, and for teenagers, it is more than 7 hours. If you pile up all those things between 0 and 18 years old, it is the equivalent of more than 30 school years.

Q: Would it be OK if children used their PCs only for learning?

A: It depends on what you require for learning. I guess the key is human presence. The brain is much more reactive to the actual presence of a human being than a vision on the screen. It is well known that children learn language and other things very easily from a real human, and not much from a human on the screen.

Studies showed that the more you invest in digitization, the heavier the drop, and the less invested, the better they did. One reason is that digitization is often done at the expense of recruiting good teachers.

Geometry software may be a useful tool to teach three dimensions in mathematics lessons. But if the result is almost the same without such tools in the end, shouldn’t we put the money to buy costly PCs and software to better use somewhere else?

Q: After all, nothing can replace real humans.

A: Nothing can be as good as humans. Studies on efficient school systems showed one thing in common: high quality of teachers. If you can have both good mathematical teachers and useful software, it is fine of course. But if you don’t have enough money for both, just put the money on teachers.

Q: Some say children can develop social skills by playing online games.

A: When you are in a surgery room, for example, the social skills you need are not the same as the social skills you need to play games. It is hyper-specific. Any new skills should develop in the given domain.

Q: Japan is moving forward with plans to fully introduce digital textbooks. What impact do you think it will have for children?

A: It is the most stupid decision that we can make for our children. There is a large amount of literature showing that we concentrate more easily on paper books. It’s not related to the generation. It’s not a question of having the habit of using a screen or not.

You can construct a better image of what you read in your brain with paper books, because paper books have more spatial unity than the screens of tablets. Some studies showed that students understand better with paper books than e-books.

Q: So we have to invest more in teachers and paper textbooks, and that’s better for humans.

A: Yes, I think so. I honestly, sincerely think so based on what is in the literature. It’s not a question of age. It is a question of the structure of the brain. If you look at how our brain has evolved, its need is simple. The brain needs human interactions because it is wired for human interactions.

The brain is not made for total constant sensory aggression. We need a low sensory stimulation mode for the brain to develop properly. The structure of our brain is old and not ready for the digital world.

It is like climate change. Things didn’t exist when scientists pointed out the possibility, but now you can see the rise of the sea level and many other things. Japan should scrutinize scientific findings about digitization again and reconsider the plans for children.

Desmurget is a researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in France.