Screen time has a bigger impact on brain development than we had thought. Decades ago, our grandparents received warnings from their parents to turn off the then-new device, the television set, on occasion so they wouldn’t “destroy their brain cells.” For decades, it seemed that the tv was innocuous enough, as it was a leisure activity and didn’t dominate every waking moment of the day.
Enter the era of hyper-connectivity. We are now in front of a screen of some type morning, noon, and night. Smartphones have replaced our old alarm clocks and now awaken us every day. Gaming systems have replaced the board games that entertained us as families. And, that old staple of our grandparents, the television, is more high-tech than ever.
At work, it’s more of the same. We consider computer monitors, tablets, and even second smartphones to be standard equipment. Even during our lunch hours, we don’t escape it. Head off to lunch at your favorite café, and you’ll probably be placing your order on an ordering kiosk and pay without needing to interact with the cashiers. It seems that there’s no escape from connectedness to screens of some kind. As it happens, we are now learning that our great-grandparents were right. We are doing harm to our brain cells. Worse yet, guess who’s most at risk from this always increasing screen time? Our children. Take a look.
Increased need for reward
Children engage in heavy screen time from an early age in the form of learning tools. These electronic devices are effective at helping babies learn as they are engaged in interacting in an entertaining and hands-on way. There’s a dangerous flip side to this coin. These games are so addictive to children because they have a built-in reward system. Digital voices exclaim “Great job!” for completing minute tasks, music plays, lights blink, and the child remains engaged.
When the child receives that reward, it releases dopamine and makes them feel good. Here’s the problem with that. It becomes addictive. These children learn to expect that reward; when they don’t get it, they don’t know how to cope with it. The dopamine response is why those tots grow up to love playing video games. They get a rush from slaying the opponent, accumulating points, and leveling up. That response is also why some people become addicted to gambling on slot machines. They crave the electronic feedback and the payoff.
Delayed development in the frontal lobe
The brain’s frontal lobe does its primary growth in the earliest years of life. This part of the brain helps us learn how to interact appropriately with others and build positive relationships. By letting young children have smartphones and tablets, we are delaying this development.
The frontal lobe is the center where we learn to connect with other people through empathy. Kids are not learning this skill today because they have too much screen time instead of face-to-face human interactions. The consequences of this are children failing to form appropriate friendships and connect with people for support or guidance. That’s a very lonely life. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Rates of depression, anxiety, OCD, and mental health diagnoses increase among children who have excessive screen time from an early age.
Brain development in babies
Newborn babies experience rapid brain growth of up to 300% by age one. Children of that age learn my doing. As any parent knows, they touch, smell, and try to taste everything that they can get their hands on! But the truth is, that these babies cannot learn without experiencing the world in real-time and in real life.
Unfortunately, the toys packaged as learning tools for children encourage babies to remain engaged with the delightful cha-ching when they achieve a task rather than exploring their environment in a more real way.
Have you ever looked at any child and wondered why they are so immature? If the child in question is enthralled with watching tv or playing games on a screen, that is often the cause of their immaturity or learning delays.
Delays in language development
Children learn language by interacting with mom, dad, siblings, and everyone they meet. The brain needs to engage in this “exercise” in order to help children develop language skills at an early age.
However, mom and dad seem to be preoccupied with their phones. They receive work emails even while off the clock, text communications with friends, or engage in social media to unwind after work. Because they are so connected to everyone via their smartphone, they are missing time that should be involved in language development with their children.
A child’s brain learns not only language from these interactions. It also learns to interpret non-verbal cues like body language or facial expressions. When children aren’t receiving these inputs from parents, it’s detrimental to the child’s development.
What you can do as a parent
As a parent, be aware of the negative impact of excessive screen time. Here are five ways to help minimize the risks.
- Ensure your children are engaged with age-appropriate devices in the same way a book should be.
- Be sure to find time to participate in one-on-one learning with your kids.
- Limit your child’s daily screen time depending upon their age/educational level.
- Make sure children have plenty of opportunity for relationship-building and making new friends.
- Practice sleep hygiene, and make sure children get plenty of rest—away from electronics.
Look around for yourself
Are you still not sure that increased screen time has become a real thing? We’re going to challenge you. Roll into your favorite grocery store, and take a walk through the store, remaining observant of your surroundings. You cannot fail to notice moms pushing carts while checking off their store list with an app rather than the old pen and paper. You’ll also see babies engaged with dad’s old cast off tablet. They are in the store together, but they appear to be disconnected from each other. Gone are the days when mom talked to baby about the shape and color or an orange or the aroma of the bakery. Teaching opportunities are wasted. Screen time isn’t going anywhere, so take measures to prevent excessive usage.