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Technology is damaging hands – not just heads

Manual dexterity is deteriorating – and smartphones are to blame

February 5, 2019

1:57 PM

5 February 2019

1:57 PM

Silicon Valley parents are famously strict about their children’s screen time, even as they dish out their ‘crack cocaine’ technology to the rest of the world’s youth. Last week, however, Tucker Carlson upped the ante: he called on Congress to step and ban children from smartphones, as they do with alcohol.

Researchers have demonstrated a link between hours spent in front of a screen and depression and anxiety levels in children. But screen usage damage isn’t just in our heads; increasingly, it’s also in our hands. 

‘Children are increasingly finding it hard to hold pens and pencils because of an excessive use of technology, senior pediatric doctors have warned,’ reports the Guardian. ‘An overuse of touchscreen phones and tablets is preventing children’s finger muscles from developing sufficiently to enable them to hold a pencil correctly, they say.’

‘“Children are not coming into school with the hand strength and dexterity they had 10 years ago,” said Sally Payne, the head pediatric occupational therapist at the Heart of England foundation NHS Trust. “Children coming into school are being given a pencil but are increasingly not be able to hold it because they don’t have the fundamental movement skills.

“To be able to grip a pencil and move it, you need strong control of the fine muscles in your fingers. Children need lots of opportunity to develop those skills.”’

Mellissa Prunty, a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in handwriting difficulties in children, is concerned that increasing numbers of children may be developing handwriting late because of an overuse of technology. 

Children have spent so much time swiping screens that a professor of surgery has sounded the alarm because medical students have lost the manual dexterity needed for stitching and swing up patients.

From the BBC:

‘Roger Kneebone, professor of surgical education at Imperial College, London, says young people have so little experience of craft skills that they struggle with anything practical. “It is important and an increasingly urgent issue,” says Professor Kneebone, who warns medical students might have high academic grades but cannot cut or sew. “It is a concern of mine and my scientific colleagues that whereas in the past you could make the assumption that students would leave school able to do certain practical things – cutting things out, making things – that is no longer the case,” says Professor Kneebone.’

Dr Kneebone says he has seen a decline in the manual dexterity of students over the past decade – which is a problem for surgeons, who need to be able to do more than just use their thumbs.

Students are missing skills that would previously have been honed for years at home or school, and as a consequence, students are ‘less competent and less confident in using their hands,’ he says.

Sadly, I’ve witnessed this firsthand while teaching violin. In order to learn to properly hold the violin bow, I often demonstrate first how this specialized handgrip is alike, and different, from the one that we use to hold a pencil. Except lately, my students stare at me blankly. They haven’t learned that there is a method to holding a pencil.

Loss of manual dexterity is just one dimension to this issue, of course.

‘Smartphone use makes your kids sadder, slower and more isolated and, over time can kill them,’ said Carlson, noting surging mental illness and suicide rates among teens that coincided with ubiquitous social media and smartphone usage around 2012. The suicide rate in the US jumped 30 percent from 2000 to 2016, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death for all Americans from ages 10 to 34.

‘Try taking an iPhone away from a seventh-grader. You learn a lot about what addiction means,’ said Carlson. ‘It’s like trying to get a junkie into rehab. You cannot do it alone.’

These technologies are not accidentally addictive. Former Apple executive Tony Fadell pointed out last week that companies like Apple, GoogleFacebookand Twitter were designed to keep us coming back for more, for another ‘dopamine hit’ every time we use their technologies.

‘The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them…was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”’ said founding Facebook president Sean Parker to Axios. ‘And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while…’

Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya lamented how social media that he helped design and the online ecosystem is ‘ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.’

‘I feel tremendous guilt,’ Palihapitiya said at Stanford Business School. ‘I think we all knew in the back of our minds…we kind of knew something bad could happen.’

Our brains and our hands are decaying thanks to too much toxic technology use. It remains to be seen whether this epidemic has reached the level of a public health crisis that requires a response from Congress, and whether lawmakers are capable of designing a solution.


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