In a digital world, how do we take advantage of the educational opportunities that tablets, laptops, and smartphones offer young children while staying on top of potential risks? As handheld technology has advanced, screens are seen regularly in the smallest of hands. According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, many children begin interacting with screens as early as infancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that children under 18 months of age should not be exposed to screens at all. At 18 to 24 months, screen time can be introduced gradually and limited to an hour a day for children ages 2 to 5. Is this realistic? And could there be any measurable harm?
The New York Times recently shared research performed by Dr. John S. Hutton, Director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, using sophisticated brain scans to determine an association between screen use and the development of young children’s brains. With a focus on language development, the study looked at myelin, a fatty substance that insulates nerve cells and improves their ability to transmit information along a brain pathway (in this instance, for speech). Myelin gives the white matter of the brain its color and protects nerve fibers from injury. As Dr. Hutton explained, the more myelin surrounding nerve fibers indicates how often they are stimulated and used. A language “explosion” at around 18 months, for example, indicates when that tract of the brain is myelinated. Practicing language, Dr. Hutton said, reinforces these connections in the brain.
For this study, a ScreenQ score of zero meant perfect adherence to AAP guidelines (no screens in the bedroom, child didn’t start watching TV or using apps until over 18 months, no violent programming, total screen time for preschoolers an hour a day of high-quality programming, co-viewing with parents, and so on) and a ScreenQ of 26 meant complete non-adherence to the AAP guidelines.
Results? The average ScreenQ score in the study was about 9. About 41 percent of the children had a screen in the bedroom; about 60 percent had their own portable devices. After controlling for age, gender and income, preschool children who had higher ScreenQ scores had lower scores on measures of white matter development along tracts involved in language and emergent literacy skills. The researchers also tested the children cognitively; the children with higher screen exposure had poorer expressive language and did worse on tests of language processing speed, like rapidly naming objects.
“It’s important to be very cautious when using screens with young kids as this study highlights. Young kids are in a critical developmental period and require face-to-face interaction,” reported Dr. David Anderson, clinical psychologist and Senior Director at the Child Mind Institute in an ABC News segment. The AAP seeks to educate parents about brain development in the early years and the importance of hands-on, unstructured social play to build language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills.
“Because maturation of neural connections is based on exposure to and use of the area of the brain where language evolves, talking with others is essential,” shared Dr. Lisa Nalven, Director Developmental Pediatrics, Kireker Center for Child Development at Valley Hospital. “While the electronic device may help children learn rote and passive skills like facts and figures, important skills like social interaction, language expansion and self-regulation are not learned.”
Dr. Nalven appreciates the current challenges parents face that did not exist when electronic options were not available. Her practice offers a positive parenting program to help parents develop skills to support positive behavior and parent-child interactions. Offering a child an iPad or cell phone to avoid a temper tantrum does not help the child develop frustration tolerance or problem solving skills. “When your baby is crying, she needs attention. She wants you, not the screen,” she said.
“You have to embrace the world as it is,” added Dr. Tova Yellin, a pediatrician at Maple Avenue Pediatrics in Fair Lawn. “But we have to be cognizant of what we’re modeling.” Parents need to consider their own screen use. If a parent is pushing a baby carriage, and is fixated on his Apple watch, he’s missing opportunities to engage his child with words. Birds are chirping, dogs are yipping, leaves or snow may be falling. The sights and sounds on a walk provide countless opportunities for language exchange.
“Long car rides are also opportunities for learning,” said Dr. Yellin. “Instead of turning on a film, make the experience interactive.” She suggests games like counting different state license plates, I Spy, spelling games, or even singing. “Choose one day of the week when screens aren’t used to let the mind rest,” she said.
While her practice’s waiting room is filled with books and games for patients, Dr. Yellin acknowledges that sometimes it’s hard to avoid the use of electronics. The AAP Council on Communications and Media suggests that adult interaction with the child during media use is crucial and consistent parental support is key. If your child is watching a program or playing a game, sit with her and talk about it. Respond and explain if necessary, and if the child gets frustrated, soothe. Enhance the learning by continuing the discussion once the screen is turned off, perhaps at the dinner table or before bed. Screen time that’s embedded in a conversation becomes more productive for the child, particularly if it’s being used for sharing ideas.
“Media is a springboard for more in-depth interactions,” explained Dr. Nalven.
“Young children won’t inherently know how to use the information learned from a game or video. They need a parent to make the experience meaningful.” Dr. Yellin agreed. “Too much time on electronics contributes to poor attention span, lack of patience in completing tasks and does not support active listening and reading comprehension.” The onus is on the parent to moderate.
Educational children’s television can evoke conversation: “Why was Daniel Tiger angry? Did you feel sad when Baby Margaret was mad?” Human discourse is key to the development of compromise and empathy.
An AAP parenting website, healthychildren.org, cites that media in all forms can affect how children feel, learn, think, and behave. Their most important message: Parents are still the most important influence when it comes to their children’s use of screens.
Deborah Breslow is a writer, editor and college-essay coach from Wyckoff. Visit her website at djbreslow.com.