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The City Journals

Hugs are better for your brain than electronics, says expert

Dec 11, 2018 09:52AM ● By Travis Barton

Christ Kane, a clinical mental health counselor, speaks to hundreds in attendance at Herriman High School. (Travis Barton/City Journals)

By Travis Barton | [email protected]

Your family needs at least eight hugs a day. 

That’s according to Dr. Christy Kane. Kane has a Ph.D. and is a clinical mental health counselor who practices in Utah and Salt Lake County and has spent years studying and preparing to write a book on how electronics affect the human brain. She does workshops around the state previously presenting in Tooele and Cedar Hills. 

On Nov. 12, Kane was at Herriman High School telling the almost 200 people in attendance how to help your family members better deal with the electronics in their lives. 

“This is the information you want to hear for you kids,” said Laura Warburton, whose daughter took her own life, as she introduced Kane. “It’s going to blow your mind and save lives.” 

Today’s electronic world of social media, text messaging, video games and snapchatting is neurologically changing kids’ brains, Kane said. She noted how today’s generations differ from previous ones. Past generations would spend their youth blueberry picking or getting neighborhood kids together to play games and build forts. 

“We’ve gone from floppy discs to hand-held computers giving us unlimited access to anything we imagine,” Kane said. 

While the information at our disposal is important, she said it also comes with side effects:

  • Fractured attention spans limiting our ability to maintain focus and concentrate. Kane showed ads from the ’60s that would cut from shot to shot every six to eight seconds. Compare this to today when videos tend to cut every three seconds. 
  • Less socializing because we spend more time in isolation. During the ’80s, kids went out three times a week socially. Today, it’s one or less. Kids spend more time isolated alone in their bedroom, according to the Center for Disease Control. 
  • Brain growth is delayed. Kane explained we’re born with 100 billion neurons in our brain. They don’t multiply and divide; they grow connections. Learning to play the violin or speak Spanish creates neurological connections for long-term growth. That process of growth is stimulated by complex activities that require focus, waiting, memorization, tactile (or touching) activities and social interaction. If such activities are diminished, brain growth delays, warned Kane. 

All this is most prescient with teenagers. Ninety-two percent of teenagers have smartphone access, and nationally, teens are spending 6.5 hours per day on electronics. 

Kane said when today’s 19-year-old is 60, they will have spent 20 years on electronics. The brain is addicted to electronics, and without properly planning and rationing out screen time, brain development is stunted, both cognitively and emotionally, Kane said. 

“You have the power to decide that you control (electronics); they don’t control you,” Kane told the audience.

To combat these issues, Kane said we need to understand three chemicals in our brain: dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. 

Anything that creates an emotion of anticipation is dopamine, like Christmas morning. It’s the addicting and pleasure seeking chemical. 

“Too much leads to anxiety and not enough is depression,” Kane said. 

The brain burns 90 percent of the energy you consume, while the body gets 10 percent.

“It’s like running three to four marathons in our minds every day,” Kane said. “It’s because we’re constantly existing in a dopamine world.” 

Serotonin is a stabilizer chemical. It affects mood, sleep, appetite, memory and perception. This comes from the food we eat, notably nuts, seeds, eggs and chicken. 

Oxytocin is where the eight hugs come in. Only produced from human touch and animals, oxytocin influences emotion and social behavior. It’s known as the “cuddle” or “love hormone” because the chemical is released when you snuggle up to someone. 

“We are meant to be held, we are meant to socialize,” Kane said. “If you take nothing else from tonight, take this: Your family needs hand to hand, eye-to-eye, body-to-body-contact hugs.” 

Kane was quick to point out that electronics aren’t evil; there just needs to be balance. Teens need nine hours of sleep. Families can create media plans to unplug and limit screen time. 

Other ways she suggested were writing in cursive, reading paperback or hardcover books rather than kindles before going to sleep, taking notes by writing them rather than typing them and spending time in nature. 

Neil and Tara Lilley recently moved to Utah from Georgia. They brought their two pre-teen boys to check out Kane’s presentation as part of family night. It left an impression. 

“There were so many things I never considered, like memorizing phone numbers or that video games are designed to make you addicted,” Tara said. “It can be kind of tough because you can’t always control what kids do at their friends’ house. But we’ll definitely change some things at our house.” 

Kane’s will present at Alta High School on Jan. 28.