Among the countless consequences that can arise from handling hazardous substances, there is one particular phenomenon whose mere mention causes fear: radiation.
However, society did not always see it as an evil.
A new discovery: radium
In the early decades of the 20th century, most people were unaware of what science was slowly unravelling. The scientist Marie Curie was a pioneer in the development of X-ray research, which had been initiated in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen. While studying uranium, she discovered and named three new chemical elements: thorium, polonium and radium, from which the word radiation originates.1
Together with her husband Pierre, Marie noticed something that, in her opinion, could revolutionize the history of medicine: phosphorescent radium eliminated diseased human cells before healthy ones. Science at the time, stunned by this wonder, began to loudly preach the benefits of radiation.
So great was the fame of radium that a leading medical authority wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Medicine: “Radioactivity prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid, youthful and joyous life.”2 Before long, cosmetics containing radium were being launched, promising to rejuvenate the skin and teeth.
There was no consumer immune to the desire to own products that contained at least some of the panacea. Soon there was an explosion of novelties of this type: chocolates, breads, woollens, soaps, eye drops, watch hands and dials, nail polish, military instrument panels, gun scopes, and even sand for children’s sandboxes and toys hand-painted in factories by young women working for the United States Radium Corporation. Unaware of the harm they were inflicting on themselves, these workers would moisten the tip of their brushes with their tongues to form the bristles into a point for the most detailed work… As time went on, their teeth and skulls began to disintegrate.
The years that followed shattered the illusions about the advantages of that new “prodigious” element. Radium is 2.7 million times more radioactive than uranium, which is commonly used in nuclear power plants. Many were the consequences of the irresponsible use of what some imagined to be the solution to all problems. Its discovery brought many benefits to medicine and the development of nuclear energy, but it caused irreparable damage in the short and long term through inappropriate domestic use.
Cybernetics: the “radium” of our days?
Contemporary man has come into contact with a new “radium” that is substantially changing his life: cybernetics. Every day, new tools are developed, new systems are created, new devices are invented or existing ones are improved to become more efficient and faster, and new technology is being designed to save lives and solve clinical problems that were once thought unsolvable. With digital advances, time and space are barriers that are beginning to seem surmountable.
On the one hand, the use of such products has brought enormous benefits to society. The world can no longer be conceived without them. On the other hand, however, recent studies show that certain devices can be a veritable Trojan horse when allowed to trespass the sacred thresholds of family life.
The family, as sound sociology argues, is the mother cell of society. All social order or disorder has its roots in the family structure of the individuals who make it up. In assessing the damage that cybernetics can cause in children’s education when misused, we find ourselves facing a very dangerous threat on a global scale.
The renowned French neuroscientist Michel Desmurget, in his book with the provocative title, Screen Damage,3 presents studies that aim to demonstrate the harmful effect of screen use in children and adolescents. His findings are the result of extensive research based on neuroscientific analyses and psycho-pedagogical statistics.
The first years of life: foundations for formation
According to Desmurget, the first years of human formation are essential for the attainment of a series of skills that become increasingly difficult in subsequent years. Language, motor coordination, mathematical fundamentals and social habits are precious pearls that need to be acquired in childhood. Most of a child’s time should therefore be spent acquiring these skills, which will inevitably influence his or her future.
When children sorts cubes according to colour, constructs buildings with pieces of different shapes, separate dolls according to size, or shape modelling clay, they are developing basic concepts such as identity and conservation, and gaining indispensable skills. However, the aforementioned activities and many others that have always been part of basic early childhood education are now being replaced by entertainment on digital devices.
From two to eight years old: alarming numbers
Statistics show disturbing averages for “digital consumption”. Children between the ages of two and four use recreational screens for an impressive average of two hours and forty-five minutes a day, equivalent to one-fifth of their daily waking hours at this age. Of course, the average rises as they grow up: by the age of eight, it will reach three hours a day. In a year, this will come to a total of 1,000 hours.
This means that, according to the average standard, between the ages of two and eight, a child spends around six to seven full school years on screens. That is four hundred and sixty days of waking hours! This time would be enough, for example, for a boy of this age to become a proficient violinist.
During the pre-adolescent period – between the ages of nine and twelve – the figures explode: the three hours devoted to screens are replaced by four hours and forty-five minutes in most cases. In these four years, two school years could be completed, just counting the time “enjoyed” in front of digital devices.
From thirteen to eighteen: staggering figures
As you might expect, the numbers skyrocket during adolescence, with the introduction of smartphones into the daily lives of most young people of this age.
The statistical graphs become truly staggering as we come upon seven hours and twenty-two minutes of daily screen use. The absurdity of these figures goes without saying. They amount to 45 per cent of a teenager’s normal waking hours and, accumulated over just one year, add up to 2,680 hours, 112 days – or three school years.
The type of entertainment chosen varies widely: social networks, television programmes, computer games and internet surfing. Some prefer to have all their time absorbed in front of a television, others like to alternate between various forms of digital entertainment.
Screens “versus” school performance
None of these statistics reveal their true relevance without demonstrating the magnitude of their impact on the intellectual formation of young people.
According to several scientific studies on the drawbacks of screen use, the amount of time spent in front of screens has a proportional effect on school performance. Conversely, research shows that restraint in favour of healthy educational practices is a common trait among families whose children have high school grades.
For example, a study carried out on nearly a thousand people who were followed over a period of twenty years, shows that every additional hour of daily television viewing between the ages of five and fifteen decreases a young person’s chance of obtaining a university degree by 15 per cent; and the risk of leaving the education system without any qualifications increases by a third.
This means that if a person in this age group devotes three hours a day to recreational screen use, they are roughly half as likely to complete university studies as someone whose use of digital devices is moderate.
Of course, these statistics do not exclude the fact that there are students with a high level of exposure to screens and satisfactory school performance. Even so, it is undeniable that these students would be much more successful if the unnecessary use of devices were avoided.
Do computer games sharpen attention?
Another faculty gradually being taken away from young people is the ability to concentrate.
For Michel Desmurget, the word concentration brings together two distinct concepts. There are many virtual games that require a distributed attention, extrinsically stimulated and widely open to the effervescence of the world. Other practices, such as reading a book, writing a summary document or solving a mathematical problem, require, on the other hand, focused attention, which is more impervious to the external environment and to thoughts outside the subject matter.
Most studies on the subject agree that digital practices are harmful to the development of a child’s focused attention.
Another long-term study concluded that every hour spent daily in front of a screen by a child in the early primary school years increases the likelihood of attention disorders by 50 per cent before the end of primary schooling.
Additionally, a study of five-year-olds found that those who spent more than two hours a day in front of screens were six times more likely to develop attention disorders than those who spent no more than 30 minutes.
There is no arguing against facts
Such data highlights the existence of real harm in the inappropriate use of the media developed in our era. The consequences are the more troubling the more they affect the formation of those who will constitute the world of tomorrow.
However, we must not forget – and this is more important than all of the foregoing – that the harm often transcends the intellectual field and reaches the field of morals and faith. Alongside the usefulness and speed, how many evils arise from the misuse of the Internet, for example! Violent or immoral content, games and entertainment that are corrupting and alien to virtue and religion… Exposing children to this “radioactive” material does not seem to be the best way to proceed for those who care for them.
As once happened with radium, many today are accepting the uncontrolled use of electronic devices without considering the consequences. But there is a difference. Those who exposed themselves to radioactivity in the last century did so out of ignorance. And will we act out of negligence? ◊
Taken from the Heralds of the Gospel magazine, #191.
1 The data on the discovery of radium and its effects are taken from the work: LEATHERBARROW, Andrew. Chernobyl 01:23:40. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2019.
2 NETTLE, Daniel. Language: Costs and Benefits of a Specialized System for Social Information Transmission. In: WELLS, Jonathan CK; STRICKLAND, Simon; LALAND, Kevin. Social Information Transmission and Human Biology. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, 2006, p.150.
3 DESMURGET, Michel. A fábrica de cretinos digitais. Os perigos das telas para nossas crianças [Screen Damage: The Dangers of Digital Media for Children]. São Paulo: Vestígio, 2021.