What technology should children have, and when will it hinder their brain development?
The average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 soaks up over seven hours a day of media in the form of television, computers, video games, and other devices, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. While many parents want their children to be prepared for a world becoming increasingly dependent on technology, recent studies have shown that so-called educational television for children 24 months and under is not beneficial, and increased exposure to media may actually harm development for children of all ages.
Birth to 24 Months
A baby is born with approximately 100 billion neurons, and over the next three years the child’s brain will develop at a faster rate than at any other point in life. Stimuli lead those neurons to form the connections that will be the physical foundation for growth and learning. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents do their best to shield infants and toddlers in this age group from television and video.
Cris Rowan, pediatric occupational therapist, child development expert and author of “Virtual Child: The Terrifying Truth about What Technology is Doing to Children,” explains: “If the infant’s environment is nurturing, predictable, and offers critical factors to promote development, the infant attains optimal physical, mental, and social growth … If the infant’s environment is one of sedentary and isolative technology use, combined with limited touch and human connection, the infant’s development will be impaired, consequently affecting all aspects of their future success.”
2 to 6 Years
Children’s brains at this age are sponges, and their capacities for large and fine motor skills are still developing, which makes outdoor play essential. The AAP suggests limiting screen time to less than two hours a day for all children, but Rowan feels parents should continue to steer clear of media as much as possible up until kindergarten. She cites a University of Massachusetts study in which researchers concluded, after studying 50 children aged 1 to 3 years old, that both the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions dramatically decreased when the television was on in the background.
The researchers suggest that “early, chronic exposure to television may have a negative impact on development,” since “high-quality parent-child interaction plays an important role in children’s development.” However, Rowan is quick to point out that there is a significant difference between using television as an electronic babysitter and parents and children sitting down together to watch a family-friendly movie.
6 to 12 Years
As a child moves from early to middle childhood and into the beginning stages of puberty, the brain begins a pruning process, where unused and unnecessary connections are eliminated based on use and experience. While there is nothing definitive and research is ongoing, there are some who believe in the “use it or lose it” principle — that how a child spends his or her time will affect the hard-wiring of the brain.
Meaning that if a child spends significant periods of time watching television and playing video games instead of academic pursuits, those school-focused connections could be pruned away. Rowan suggests introducing “balanced technology management” (BTM) at this age, which includes keeping televisions, computers, and video-game consoles out of bedrooms and in shared living spaces where their usage can be more easily monitored.
As children move into their teenage years, the brain is still undergoing this pruning process — even as new synapses are being formed. The brain usually reaches its adult weight around age 14, but recent studies show that at this age the frontal lobe, which controls impulse, judgment, and reasoning, is still less developed than that of an adult. The AAP still suggests less than two hours a day of media exposure, but most parents would argue that is virtually impossible. This, again, is where Rowan suggests BTM and shares how she manages media exposure with her own teenage daughter: “We have a box,” she says, “and before bed, all of the devices go in the box. That way I know she’s getting some sleep and not texting all night.”
Ultimately, it’s up to each parent to determine how much technology is too much and to ensure that children are getting the love and attention they need to develop physically and emotionally. Parents also need to act as role models and manage their own technology usage. “Adults are connecting more and more to devices, both at home and in the workplace,” says Rowan. “In the absence of a functional attachment to an adult, children will attach to devices.”
This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Winter 2012 issue.
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