Playing craps with your kids’ brains.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of


You know how playing craps goes…

You hold the dice, you shake them three times in cupped hands, three times in that hand, three times in this hand, then you blow on them, then you do some other ritualized superstitious bunk, then you toss them against the backboard and hope like crazy they come out ok.

Kind of like raising children really, except you’re unlikely hear someone yell out “Winner winner chicken dinner!” when you’ve just performed some particularly impressive parenting maneuver.

And to be fair, it sometimes feels like parenting is as much of a crapshoot as, well, craps.

But unlike craps, when it comes to you, your kids, and their brains, you often don’t see the results of your dice throwing until much later. All the more pressure to get it right early, no?

While some things just don’t really matter, there are a couple of simple, but crucial, things we’d like you to take to heart if you’re the parent of a young brain. And if you’re now simply the custodian of your own, older brain, the concepts still apply.


We recently finished a five-post series on reading from books versus reading online. On this blog, we’re heavily in favor of reading books as a key developmental component for kids and teens, and a tool to keep us sharp through life.

While we stopped short of saying the internet will turn your brains to pond slop and that you shouldn’t use it (this is an online blog after all… irony noted) we do promote minimal screen time for kids.

Generally, for infants and toddlers up to say, age three, none is good. You read that right. They don’t need screen time.

And while screens are ubiquitous these days (how many in your house?) and we won’t escape them, we’ll do our kids’ brains a favour in the long-term by limiting screen time now.

And adults could do with less too.

In short, brains need time away from the constant demands that screens place on them.

Mental overload

You might recall we’ve talked a little about cognitive load, which is the amount of mental work we can manage, given the limited resources the brain has. It’s an important concept when we come to learning and screens.

Remember, while it’s about only two per cent of your body weight, the brain uses 20% of the oxygen you breathe, and 20% of the glucose in your bloodstream. When it’s running out of either, it doesn’t function very well. It has physical stamina and endurance limits, and capacity limits.

While long-term memory may be limitless, working memory, which is the capability you’re using right now to hold a few things in mind while you work with something, is absolutely limited. Seven things,  plus or minus two, has always been the rule, but we know it’s actually closer to three or four and, if the material is a little more complex, two.

That isn’t much

So if you want to put something new into working memory, something else will have to come out.

And giving the brain too much to filter, sort, choose from, remember, pay attention to, and so on, exceeds your cognitive load.

When you consider that the brain is a sucker for novelty, and struggles to ignore new things, a feature every television advertiser, video game designer and web designer knows and exploits, you can understand how taxing screens are on brains and how easily we fall into the trap of staring at them for extended periods.

Note: this blog ought to have more internal and external links to push it further up rankings, make it more clickable and so on. I don’t, because your brain doesn’t need it 🙂

But while they make us expend energy, it’s energy only for working memory. What happens is that you temporarily strengthen existing connections between brain cells while you’re working on that task. This is in contrast to long-term memory, which permanently strengthens connections AND grows new connections.

Give your brain a break

Erik Fransen, a researcher from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology, says that a brain exposed to a typical session of social media browsing can easily become hobbled by information overload. The result is that less information gets filed away in your memory.

He continues, adding that contrary to common wisdom, an idle brain is in fact doing important work – and in the age of constant information overload, it’s a good idea to go offline on a regular basis, because downtime gives opportunity for the brain to sort, file, organize, consolidate and, yes, delete information.

It’s necessary breathing space.

With working memory, as we look to pile more things into it, not only do we use up its limited storage capacity, the load we give it also reduces our capacity for information processing. The reason, unfortunately, is that some of the same resources we use for working memory, are used for information processing.

Consequently, we need to keep some of this processing capacity free to think about what we’re reading or seeing.

Think about it like this

Put it this way. You’ve been shopping for groceries and brought home a number of bags. You put your keys on one finger, then load up every spare finger with another bag. You’ve got as much load as you can carry. This is like your cognitive load, now full.

When you get to the door, you’re so busy holding onto the bags, that you can’t use your fingers to use the keys and open the door. This is the overlap between information processing capacity and working memory. You’ve exceeded your load, all your fingers used to hold bags, but at least a couple of these fingers are needed to open the door.

The only way you can open the door, is to put down some bags, reduce your load, and free up some fingers.

Same goes for your brain.

So here’s the take home bit

Managing kids’ brains doesn’t need to be a crap shoot. Limit time in front of screens now to give their brains time to process information.

Give them time to focus on non-screen things for extended periods of effort with tasks of increasing difficulty.

Music practice is one. Book reading is another – aim for 20 minutes a day.

Be conscious of time onscreen (any screen) and the load it places on brains – your’s too.

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Working memory, cognitive load

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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