Since the Covid Pandemic, there has been a worrying increase in the rise of mental health disorders in children and young people. However, very few people are aware that this upward trend is not recent and existed long before we were isolated to our homes. Since the pandemic, The National Institutes for Health discovered that now 1 in every 6 children had daily or weekly symptoms of anxiety and depression. Mindfulness, despite being an ancient technique, has real modern-day applications, especially for our children.
Modern life has changed how we live; in short, children live much more insular lives. A large amount of social connection is done through the medium of an electronic device. Children no longer use imagination and play in the same way. Technology use is changing us; we are animals after all. Even though we know this, many of us gripe about it and most of us would do anything to change it, we cannot change the facts: Technology is part and parcel of our everyday lives.
More sinister still, technology use is becoming an accepted part of how children are growing up. We see this more and more frequently with the smartphone or tablet becoming the new pacifier of choice for many toddlers. Peer pressure, media and modern society prevent technology from being excluded from our lives. So now that we know that this is an unavoidable evil, we first should all know what it does to us and why we find it so unbearably difficult to stop reaching for the smart device.
Spain is one of the worst affected areas and is currently experiencing high, with the last ten years seeing over nine thousand six hundred suicides amongst under 18’s, with 906 of those taking place in 2022 alone. There are a number of factors contributing to this alarming rise such as the Pandemic and children and adolescents' dependence on social media. This type of impact on children was not something that could have been dreamed of pre-facebook.
Dr Silvia Alva a clinical psychologist from the Autonomous University of Madrid warns about adolescent social media use stating “In adolescence, we have to be careful with the use of social media. Why? Adolescence is a critical period for the formation of identity. And in this comes into play the self-concept, which is that image that we all have of ourselves.”.
Studies have been widely conducted on the effect that technology use is having on brains, showing alterations to our structure, biochemistry, behaviour, personalities and characteristics. We have greater problems than ever with anxiety, attention and mood. Many studies have been conducted on Internet Addiction Disorder, with symptoms as disturbing as the reality that the Internet is the twenty-first-century equivalent of nicotine, but far more accessible. Symptoms include shivers, tremors, nausea and anxiety in some cases.
Modern children and adults have real problems with imagination, believing that play is something infantile, unproductive or a by-product of vulnerability. However, the truth about imagination is that it is incredibly beneficial for our brain structures as a whole.
The amount of screen time we get has a direct effect on the chemical components in our brains today. Screen time has been linked to delayed cognitive development and is linked to attention problems in children, social functioning problems and problems with sleep. This is partly due to the unnatural light from the devices we use and their effect on the chemical production in our brains. Indeed, we are living so unnaturally that it is having real-time effects on the structures of our brains. Studies on the effect of technology use have shown enlarged amygdala and decreased hippocampal size, in children and adolescents. This is conducive to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, as these are the areas of the brain associated with threat detection and chronic pain.
Our threat detection systems are highly sensitive, as we, as hunter-gatherers, have evolved, foraging for food and escaping the dangers of large predators. Our threat detection systems alert us to natural disasters, fire and other humans who might potentially fight us for territory and mates. However, as time has gone on, our wonderfully evolved brain has wrapped its head around art, music and mathematics, but still has the same, now outdated, threat detection system. We input large amounts of stimuli from the world around us; however, our filtration systems are not as efficient as they could potentially be. We watch large quantities of high-content, high-action television which we enjoy because it produces a chemical response in us, so we feel excitement, fear and a range of other emotions. However, while our conscious mind understands that these threats aren’t direct or real, our subconscious minds do not. Over time, the strain and constant overstimulation of our brains result in high levels of anxiety, not only in children but in adults too! High levels of anxiety over a prolonged or chronic period result in the previously mentioned structural changes to those brain regions. More frustratingly, simply stopping technology use is not that simple, as it has become such an unconscious response due to the intervention of Dopamine. Dopamine is the pleasure hormone most linked with addiction. When we do something pleasurable, our brain rewards us, on the mesolimbic pathway, by producing dopamine, so we feel like we need to do it again and again, even if we don’t have a reason.
Mindfulness is widely defined as a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Mindfulness also improves areas of empathy and social function. Concerning social cognition, research conducted on adults indicated that participants who actively engaged in mindfulness, after only eight weeks showed increased activation in the right dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls executive functions such as working memory and decision-making and also social cognition).
Meditation is known to reduce amygdala size, promote hippocampal size and take action on the mesolimbic pathway because our brain sees it as a reward. Meditation also stops random thoughts and thought processes; for example, it reduces those pesky, anxious thoughts. Thoughts such as these are perfectly natural, but they are perfectly avoidable as well.
Technology is unavoidable; we should merely learn to safeguard ourselves against the potential side effects of our screen time. With regard to modern living, we can see that the benefits of mindfulness are endless. It can increase emotional awareness and coping skills in children at a very important time in their lives and it also has many follow-on benefits. It can engage parts of the brain in children, congruent with executive functioning, top-down processing and self-regulatory skills, thus providing children at a young age with the ability to learn how to achieve higher cognitive functioning and overall improved well-being in a way that will be sustainable into adult life, while also engaging children with an awareness of their own feelings and mental state and giving them the tools to manage stress in the best possible way.
The benefits of mindfulness in children, through age-appropriate easily engaged mindfulness training activities, are shown to target both the top-down and bottom-up influences on self-regulation. Training one’s attention to moment-to-moment experiences is a top-down reflection; we will talk about this more, shortly. Also, practising non-judgement produces calmness and well-being, as does focusing on the present as opposed to ruminating over recollected sources of anxiety. This is because the cognitive level and emotional level of the mindfulness training, with control attention and evaluation, disrupt the automatic emotional responses, resulting in greater calmness and emotional stability, which, in turn, makes it easier to consider multiple aspects and perspectives of a given situation as well as multiple possible responses.
Mindfulness works by targeting key areas of the brain through simple daily exercises. While this approach may seem over simplistic it has real transformative potential as to how they react emotionally to the events that take place in their lives.
Everyone processes mood and emotion differently, because of the different ways that people live their lives and their current and previous life experiences and environment. With interventions such as meditation, emotion can be processed differently. What Mindfulness has been shown to do, is to create a shift from the right prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region most highly associated with Anxiety, Stress and negative mood, to the right prefrontal cortex, the brain region highly associated with decision-making, memory and good moods. While emotion is quite complex and has been linked to these relevant areas of the brain, it must be noted that it does not do so in isolation; rather, emotion is generated from interacting brain regions. Due to the brain’s plasticity, this shift is highly achievable with simple meditation and is sustainable with regular meditation.
Meditation has also been linked to higher levels of “top-down” processing as opposed to “bottom-up”. Top-down processing simply refers to higher levels of executive functioning. This is highly important; for instance, when we hear a loud noise and get a fright. Now, if we are bottom-up processing, we have a pretty active fight-or-flight response, so we are likely either getting ready to wield a baseball bat at a potential intruder or running However, with top-down processing you still hear the loud noise, but, instead of our primitive brain kicking in, getting us ready to attack or run, we first check to see if we recognise the noise and if there is an explanation for the bang, before choosing to release adrenalin and fleeing. While this is an incredibly simplistic explanation, it aims to explain that Meditation enables us to override the pesky primitive responses that we don’t need all the time.
- Easy ways to introduce mindfulness to your kids:Download one of the many apps and programs available online or if you are hoping to avoid technology altogether there are countless mindfulness books and scripts that you can read to your child.
- Getting children to count the in and the out breaths from one to ten is a great start to mindfulness. Starting with a minute of counting in breaths followed by a minute counting out breaths and adding on when you feel that the child’s attention has progressed would be ideal.
- Introduce days where they have to use their non-dominant hand in their normal activities. One of the best things to promote mindfulness is the beginner's mind, however, this isn’t always easy to cultivate. Using your non-dominant hand is a surprising way to bring mindfulness into mundane situations like brushing your teeth.