Generations of children have grown up hearing, “Don’t sit so close; you’ll ruin your eyes!” I remember it myself, and today’s generation is 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 children’s linguistic abilities 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 for 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 an iPad without really knowing the impact it’s having on their young and underdeveloped brains. You see, most brain development takes place during a short yet crucial period, from birth to about the age of 7.
At birth, brains are 25% the size of adults, but at approximately three years, that brain will grow to around 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 where learning takes place. With twice as many synapses as 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 reaching for the iPad and exposing your young toddler to as many CBeebies and Elmo Loves as possible will be supporting this period, but press pause for a moment. The World Health Organisation 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 self-reflection, future planning, and creativity to flourish.
As the brain develops, so do some main functions. Here is a quick snapshot that you can refer to. It may help you decide when you feel it is appropriate to introduce screen time and consider what form it will take.
Early Years Brain Development Snapshot*
- 0-6 months – Vision/visual cortex
- 0-1 years – Recognising facial expressions, voices, other sensory input
- 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 years until early 20 s- Pre-frontal cortex/self-control/personality
As you can see from the above, preschool years represent a short time of significant cognitive and behavioural growth. For example, at age 2, the temporal lobe develops more interconnected synapses. Expect your little munchkin to rapidly build 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 substance surrounding 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 and 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!
At age 3, synapses reach their peak in the prefrontal cortex. As a result, your pre-schooler one will have enhanced their cognitive abilities, such as improved working memory, perception, impulse control and coping skills. The pre-schooler begins to internalise the lessons they’ve learned and synthesise them into their own value system.
Why is it important to manage children’s screen time based on this information?
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 the knowledge of brain development, impact on screen time and an understanding of how we treat our 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 is rich human experiences (unlike digital ones) that 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 sitting watching Peppa Pig, they could be missing an opportunity to develop fine motor skills, language skills or problem-solving by doing a puzzle or simply watching you!
Some studies 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”.
Regardless of the programming quality, screen time tends to mean sedentary time. So it is essential to consider that any time spent on the sofa forgoes an opportunity for your little one to refine 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 programmes 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 critical stage? It’s complicated! Much of the research in 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 parents is not that screens are wrong, 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, about what kinds of experiences may be most helpful and constructive — and how parents hold the keys to those experiences.”
Helpful Tips to Support Brain Development
- 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!
- Let them be bored! Don’t reach for the iPad immediately. Allow their curious minds to wander. It won’t take long till they find something else to occupy themselves.
- Opt for quality programmes/apps that can teach literacy and maths instead of purely entertainment ones.
- No screen time for 1 hour before bedtime or nap-time (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 brain areas vulnerable and reduce their ability to function. Plus, who wants a grumpy baby?!
- Ensure it’s 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.
- Swap Screen time for Audio time! This can be just as engaging as a screen, allowing you to get some rest. Audible, Yoto or Tonies can be a great place to start!
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