Generations of children have grown up hearing "Don't sit so close; you'll ruin your eyes!” I remember it myself, and todays are no exception. Despite the fears, whilst looking at a screen for hours on end may lead to temporary eyestrain, a direct result in complete blindness or damage to the brain is incredibly far-fetched! Phew. The impact of screen time on the child’s brain has been debated for decades. One of the most prominent critics, author and educator Neil Postman widely claimed that TV can erode the linguistic abilities of children and their ability to handle mathematical symbolism. Although there are countless articles into the harmful effects of the developing brain, counter research has also put forward compelling arguments and studies. No wonder the subject of screen time can be so baffling and divisive amongst us parents! Baffles aside, at the heart of these debates are concerned parents who only want to do right by their children and give them the best start in life. We take our daily folic acid, avoid smoking, play them classical music, Freddie the Firefly in hand, all in the name of healthy development. But some of us would switch on Baby TV or and I pad without really knowing the impact it’s having on their young and underdevelopment brains. You see, most brain development takes place during a short yet crucial period, from birth to about the age of 7. Bringing awareness to your child’s development during this phase and understanding how screen use impacts is crucial.
At birth, brains are 25% the size of an adults but at approximately three years, that brain will grow to approximately 80% the size of an adult. In addition, your tantrum prone, food throwing, rice cake munching two-year-old will have twice as many synapses as adults. Synapses allow information to be passed along between brain cells, they are connections which is where learning takes place. With twice as many synapses than you or me, your two-year old’s brain will learn faster than at any other time of life. Children's experiences and exposure to visual stimuli in this period can have lasting effects on their development. You might think then that by reaching for the I pad and exposing your young toddler to as much CBeebies and Elmo Loves as possible will be supporting this period, but press pause for a moment. The World Health Organisations recommends No screen time in any form for children aged 2 and under. For those aged 2-4 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour. Kids this age need human experiences for their brains to develop optimally for example through screen free play and social interactions. Don’t underestimate the benefits of “boredom” either. This allows their brains to explore in an unstructured way. The mind can wander, to daydream allowing for self-reflection, future planning, and creativity to flourish.
As the brain develops, so do some main functions which occur at different ages. Here is a quick snapshot which you can refer to, it may help you decide when you feel is appropriate to introduce screen time and consider what form it will take place
· 0-6 months- Vision/visual cortex
· 0-1 years- Recognizing facial expressions, voices, other sensory input: 0-1 years
· 0-3 years- Cerebellum/motor skills
· 16 - 24 months Language, Vocab skills
· Ages of 3-6- Significant development in long-term, short-term, and working memory
· 18 months- 2 years Emotional Skills including empathy, interpersonal intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence
· 3-7 and until early 20s- Pre-frontal cortex/self-control/personality: age 3-7 and until
As you can see from the above, preschool years represent a short time of significant cognitive and behavioural growth. For example, age 2, the temporal lobe develops more interconnected synapses. Expect your little munchkin to rapidly develop their speech and language skills as they widen their vocabulary. During this period, there is also an increase in myelination production. This is the fatty like substance which surrounds the brain cells (neurons) which helps the brain perform even more complex tasks. Although it might be some time before children have fully mastered balance & coordination allowing them to e.g., kick a ball, during their first year, the cerebellum (best known for its role in motor control
) Will triple in size! Age 3, synapses reach their peak in the prefrontal cortex. As a result, your little one will have enhanced their cognitive abilities such as e.g. improved working memory, perception, impulse control and coping skills. sThe pre-schooler begins to internalize the lessons they’ve learned and synthesie them into their own value system.
Based on this information, why is it important to manage children's screen time?
Now that we’ve taken a brief look at what is going on in your child’s developing brain, we can start to consider how their digital environment can influence that development. If we are armed with both knowledge of brain development, impact on screen time and an understanding that how the way we treat your children shapes them cognitively we can bring more awareness to our parenting decisions. This period of rapid brain development is a tiny yet critical period in their lives. The brain is plastic, it changes based on our experiences - It’s rich human experiences (unlike digital ones) which will fundamentally shape a young child and reinforce these developments. Consider any missed opportunities for brain development your child could be experiencing whilst they are on the screen. For example, whilst they are sat watching Peppa Pig they could be missing an opportunity to develop e.g., fine motor skills, language skills or problem solving by doing a puzzle or by simply watch you! There are studies that show early usage of screens is related to poorer language development in pre-schoolers. For example, research by John S. Hutton et al on 47 preschool children found children who have more screen time than recommended had “lower structural integrity of white matter tracts in parts of the brain that support language and other emergent literacy skills”. Also, important to consider is that regardless of the quality of programming, screen time tends to mean sedentary time which compromises an opportunity for your little one to refining his or her motor skills and form new brain connections which fuel better learning and memory.
On the other side there are studies to suggest educational Apps and Tv programs may
promote literacy, mathematics, problem solving and science skills, as well as prosocial behaviour in preschool-aged children. Friends claim their child learnt to count just by watching Number blocks!
Can screen time support this crucial stage? It’s complicated! Can screen time harm this crucial stage? It’s complicated! Much of the research in the fields of neuroscience and new media is in its infancy. In some cases due to the small sample sizes, quality is not enough to draw direct causations so you can’t say with any certainty that screens are bad for children’s brains. That’s not to say we shouldn’t proceed with caution. So, the message to you parents is not that screens-are-bad, or you’re-making bad decisions. This is not about criticising the companies that create Baby TV and Pinkfong. As Dr. Perri Klass would say, it’s a cautionary tale about the ways that the developing brain is shaped by experiences, and about what kinds of experiences may be most helpful and constructive — and how parents hold the keys to those experiences.
Helpful Tips to Support their Brain Development
1) Follow the World Health Organisation Guidelines- No screen time before 2 years old. Instead take advantage of those growing synapses, Interact, talk, play, sing, read, explore!
2) Let them be bored! Don’t reach for the I pad immediately, allow their curious minds to wander, it wont take long till they find something else to occupy themselves.
3) Opt for quality programs/apps which can teach literacy and math as opposed to purely entertainment ones.
4) No screen time for 1 hour before bedtime or naptime (that goes for you adults too!) Sleep plays a vital role cognitively and physically. Blue light affects melatonin production and lack of sleep can make all areas of the brain vulnerable and reduce their ability to function. Plus, who wants a grumpy baby?!
5) Ensure its appropriate content. A U rating does NOT mean it’s age appropriate and compliments your child’s stages of brain development. Cross reference with Common Sense Media.
6) Swap Screen time for Audio time! For young children this can be just as engaging as a screen allowing you to get rest bite. Audible, Yoto or Tonies can be a great place to start!