Brain Development - March 8, 2017

This is an image of a child using a tablet and she is frustrated

Although technology has many benefits and advantages in today’s world, it is important for parents and caregivers of children to understand the potential impact technology has on the young, developing brain. Not only is there concern for the possibility of decreased intelligence and academic performance, but also a lack of empathetic development, social emotional intelligence as well as, delayed and decreased language development. Unfortunately, children are currently spending a daily average of seven plus hours in front of the digital screen (Przybylski, 2014). On average, parents are reported to use 940 words an hour when communicating with a toddler. However, when the television is on, the number of words the parent uses decreases to 770. This results in the toddler learning fewer words.

It is important to understand that children require movement and play for healthy brain growth, optimal learning, and healthy social interaction. Providing children with as many opportunities as possible to be engaged in activities that include rhythm, rhyme, music, through direct human interaction helps to not only increase learning, but also the desire to learn. Research indicates that increased learning also occurs when children have fun while learning. The parent, caregiver, or teacher who makes learning fun and exciting through direct human contact and interaction cannot be replaced by a digital screen device of any sort. A screen can never replace the smile and laughter of a caring and emotionally engaged human being. In fact, a smile is the world’s most powerful gesture. The physiological response of a smile involves a sequence of neuronal transmissions between different parts of the brain, the cranial muscle and facial smiling muscles that reinforces the feeling of joy.

The human brain is designed to help a person to navigate and survive through a three dimensional world using all five senses of sight, hearing, tactile/touch, smell, and taste. When engaged in screen time, the human brain is only utilizing at most the three senses of sight, minimal touch (use of the thumbs), and hearing. When on the digital screen, the child is living in a virtual two-dimensional world as opposed to the “real” three dimensional “reality” in which we exist. It is known that the human brain prunes dendrites (one of the threadlike extensions of the cytoplasm of a neuron; dendrites branch into treelike processes and compose most of the receptive surface of a neuron) that are not being utilized at ages two, six, and fourteen years of age. So, if a child is spending a significant amount of time on the screen, many important and vital areas of the brain that are required in the “real world” are not being fully developed.

Between the ages of two and six years of age, the Theta brainwave state is critical for the development of storytelling, imagination, and play. This genetic design of the brain is unfortunately being replaced by a screen surrogate which is not permitting full development of these important areas of the brain. For this reason, it is suggested by the American Academy of Pediatrics that “screen time” should be limited to two hours a day for children ages three to eighteen. And, for two-year-olds and younger, no exposure to screen time at all. The actual long-term implications of screen time on the developing brain can only be imagined.

In terms of social emotional consequences, a child’s ability to recognize emotions may be inhibited due to spending a lot of time in the two-dimensional virtual world. A study completed by the University of California Los Angeles found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television, or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices (Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014) 387-392).

In terms of screen time and additional negative effects upon the human brain, there is a growing concern that excessive digital screen time may pose a risk of increasing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and aggression amongst children. Experts believe that electronic screen syndrome (ESS) is causing sleep deprivation, social isolation, behavior problems, and a hyper-aroused nervous system. It is estimated that up to 80% of children seen by pediatricians who are being medicated for ADHD, anxiety, depression, and mood swings do not have these disorders at all.

Screen time may prove to have some benefits toward enhanced learning when the child is engaged in an educational program and when parents include adult supervision, interaction, and engagement. It is in the child’s best interest for parents to limit screen time within appropriate and suggested boundaries that have been determined by the experts. There is nothing more important in the "world of parenting” than ensuring that your child develops to the best of their potential in all areas. The following resources are available to assist parents in achieving this invaluable goal.