International Brain awareness week made me remember how important it is to take care of our brain and how comprehensively the well-being of our brain affects everything in our lives. I have been concerned about the increasing use of digital devices and what it does to our brain. Brain researcher, Riitta Hari, has said that a person and their brain need company. But if – and when – the physical encounters and interactions continue to decrease how all this will affect the health of our brain and overall well-being?
Another important topic for me is exercise and its effect on the brain. As a mother and as someone who used to work in the field of early childhood education, I think about all this especially from the children's point of view; what kind of example do we set for our children, and how could we protect them when we know that exercise is most important as a child when brain development is at its most active. Of course, the brain can and should be improved throughout life, but the foundation of brain health is built during childhood.
The importance of social interaction for brain health
In a webinar held by the Finnish Brain Foundation several lecturers pointed out that we need physical encounters, because when we meet people in person our brain activity is significantly more diverse than in remote meetings or when we are in contact via social media, for example. Other people’s movement patterns activate our own, and the limbic brain develops in childhood only through physical encounters and interactions. Physical contact is also very important, and it doesn’t happen if we are constantly only in remote meetings, or if the children stay at their own homes and interact through phones, etc. devices and games. The lack of social and physical interaction is also linked to memory problems, and the need for it was even equated to be as important as sleep and rest.
I am quite worried about the ever-increasing use of digital devices and the decrease of social interactions. We know that marginalization of youth is a growing problem and the human interactions transferring onto digital platforms is likely to increase the risk for it even more. One researcher emphasized in their lecture that children don’t need digital devices but live interactions. When I worked as a kindergarten teacher, I always emphasized the importance of play, because when playing and interacting with others, children practice many important skills, such as problem solving and decision making. Already in childhood we should learn to tolerate the feeling of discomfort and stress also on some level, because the brain needs challenging.
The importance of exercise for brain health
The affect exercise has on learning has been studied for a long time and it has been found to have many positive effects. The importance of exercise cannot be emphasized enough especially during childhood and teenage years when our brain and bodies are developing the most but exercise is important for brain health throughout the life. When we move, different brain areas co-operate which develops our brain as new connections are formed.
On the website of Finnish Brain Association, it is said that half of the brain cells are reserved for movement and a quarter for making observations (read more here, article available in Finnish).
Versatile exercise is important for our health, but even small amounts of exercise during the day have a positive effect on our brain and keep our mind fresh. Since sitting still for just 20 minutes slows down our blood circulation, even a brief moment of exercise – even just for two minutes – refreshes our brain, increasing blood circulation and improving attentiveness. From blood pressure’s point of view endurance sports are important, but above all, it is just important to find the ways to move and exercise that you find comfortable and to be kind to yourself, as Risto O. Roine, chairman of Suomen Aivot Ry (Finnish Brain Council), also reminds us.
How does social media affect our brain?
Although at best social media can increase the sense of belonging and being part of something and strengthen our identity, at the same time it has been studied to increase anxiety and depression. Social media encounters and interactions are not reality and even though we are aware of that, it affects our subconscious in the long run – whether we like it or not. When we get responses and likes on our posts, it increases the feeling of pleasure in the brain and is strongly addictive, because it gives a feeling of being meaningful. On the other hand, if our pictures and posts do not receive attention or the response is negative, it can cause anxiety in the long run – not to mention pressure on looks and performance. Especially during adolescence, the brain is exceptionally sensitive to negative impacts and messages.
Social media feeds our brain with a constant flow of information and sensory stimulus, which is overwhelming. I, for myself, created my first social media account in the fall of 2020, and since people tend to seek pleasure from things that rewards them quickly, I was no exception and got hooked. A month ago, when I started a social media break, for the first couple of days I noticed myself opening a social media account several times during the day just by instinct, without even thinking about it. It was really eye-opening to realize how many interruptions social media had brought to my days and how much time it has stolen. In just two days I noticed my mind being calmer without that constant information flood.
One of the biggest reasons for starting the social media break was my ten-year-old daughter. I was recently in a restaurant and noticed that friends, families and couples were not fully present because every now and then someone was looking at their phone. I figured that I don’t want to be that mother or partner who doesn’t value their loved ones enough to be present for them.
How to limit children’s use of digital devices?
My own daughter is already ten years old, so I have been able to explain setting limits also from the point of view of brain health. I encourage you to talk about the topic according to the age, but to small children there’s no need to explain the matter in detail. After all, we set limits and boundaries for them anyway – for their own good – and despite the tantrums and objections, boundaries create a sense of security, and time without digital devices gives an opportunity for creativity. Also, tolerating disappointment is an important skill. But what about teenagers who have practically grown to be joint to their phones? The phrase “this is my private issue, and you can’t interfere with it” surely has been heard from many teenagers. However, we are talking about a serious issue here: in the recent years the biggest reason for army suspensions in Finland has been phone addiction. I encourage you to respond with the phrase “As long as you’re living under my roof, you live by my rules”. Of course, I encourage you to have constructing discussions about the topic, but if necessary, strict boundaries are required. And what if you are addicted to your phone the same way? Make agreements together with the teenagers and agree on times when the whole family is without smart devices.
Take care of your brain: eat nutritiously, do versatile exercises, sleep enough and take care of your relationships.