Tech influence on the brain a focus of UCC Casey Fellow’s research

Dr. Shimi Kang, an expert in the neuroscience of adaptability, leadership and self-motivation, joined students, staff and community in a series of virtual talks. 
Dr. Kang is a practising psychiatrist, addictions specialist and associate clinical professor at the University of British Columbia. The Casey Fellows Program for Mental Health and Student Wellbeing has allowed the College to host world-renowned individuals in the field of health and wellbeing, thanks to the generosity of donor Matthew Casey ’83. 

Prior to Dr. Kang’s community lecture, Principal Sam McKinney announced that Casey had renewed his commitment to the fellows program for another five years, appropriate “at a time when the College is deepening commitment to wellbeing,” he noted. Casey was commended for his enduring dedication to both this issue and the school.  

Said Dr. Kang in her talk, “One of the existential threats of our time is the mental health and wellbeing of this next generation. We are losing their minds to anxiety, addiction, deprivation and perfectionism.” 

Kang pointed out the interplay between these developments and the proliferation and use of technology, likening it to the discovery of fire as humankind evolved.

“Those who learned to innovate with the power of fire did well and went further than ever before, but those who didn’t got burnt,” she said, noting that she sees this in her practice.

Although there is no way to avoid technology, the key is to use it well, she said, because its overuse or misuse is linked to myriad problems such as sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, loneliness and social skills impairment. Boys, especially, are at a higher risk of learning disorders as a result.

Kang compared screen time to food consumption: it needs to be chosen with an eye towards quality and health, rather than being a sugary, harmful experience. She proposed placing limits on “junk” screen time while maximizing the healthy use of technology for creativity (pursuits like coding and innovation), connecting (touching base with family and friends) and self-care (like meditation or exercise aids).

The earlier parents help their children establish healthy tech habits, the better, she recommended. To do so, children need to learn basic skills in time management, emotional regulation and to develop social skills. 

“Tech is a tool, not a toy,” Kang said. “It creates hidden sources of stress. When you’re hunched over a screen, for example, the nervous system fires cortisol [a stress hormone].”

Kang suggests that tech used well can promote peace and bliss through mindfulness, laughter and music. It can help youth socialize, and it can assist with the joys of creativity as youngsters or teens use it to learn new skills or information, or create art or music.

Although some youth may have established bad tech habits, it’s never too late to change them, Kang noted. “Neural trails [in the brain] develop with use and you can always fire and rewire your neurons.”
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