How Do Screens Affect Children's Brains?

How Do Screens Affect Children's Brains?

Screens are amazing for a lot of things, but overexposure to them can have devastating effects for children. As screen time has skyrocketed, so have cognitive and behavioral issues like ADHD.

So what effects do screens have on young children's brains?

JAMA Pediatrics, a highly-regarded American Medical Association publication, found that children who spent more time on screens showed less expressive language and ability to rapidly name objects, decreased literacy skills, and even physical changes to the brain.

So how much screen time is too much? Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend the following guidelines:

  • Until 18-months: No screen time.
  • Until age 5: Limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programming, co-view with your children, help them understand what they are seeing, and help them apply what they learn to the world around them.

Screen Time Has Soared During The Pandemic

According to The New York Times, children’s screen time had doubled by May as compared with the same period in the year prior, according to Qustodio, a company that tracks usage on tens of thousands of devices used by children, ages 4 to 15, worldwide.

And as technology continues to advance, the number of people using smartphones, both old and young, is continually increasing. Many apps and games advertise themselves as educational tools that will foster a more focused and intelligent child, but in actuality, these devices can hinder learning objectives.

Interacting with a smart device has the potential to put your child's brain into a passive “zombie mode”. Screen content often lacks the necessary interaction to challenge kids and exercise their developing minds.

Serious Consequences

Many areas of the brain are affected by prolonged device exposure, which studies have shown can lead to mental health problems down the line, including depression. Mental health problems can stem from screen time’s potential to negatively affect your child’s problem-solving, communication, and social interaction skills.

A child that opts for a phone or tablet instead of a tactile game or playdate restricts themself from learning many lessons. The skills that a child can gain by interacting with real objects and people are exponentially more valuable. If a child is overexposed to screens early on, they may lack real-life experiences that make it more difficult for them to choose healthy behaviors when they get older. Therefore, by avoiding screen time or limiting it, you can teach your child valuable life lessons and prepare them more thoroughly for the future.

Hinders Interaction With Others

An essential part of childhood is making friends. If your child does not have the appropriate skills to interact and relate to other kids, they will not be able to form important relationships. All relationships require communication, concentration, and focus. These are all skills that can be negatively affected by screen time which will ultimately decrease your child’s ability to be present and attentive.

Making friends can be difficult and, if a child has the option, they will choose the easier activity of gluing themself to a screen, rather than requesting a playdate with a friend. Toddlers do not understand the significance of a close relationship, so as a parent, you must promote social interactions with other children. You can do this by scheduling playdates with other parents or by enrolling your child in a recreational activity that requires them to interact with other kids. The more social interactions your child has in their early years, the more likely they will create strong friendships in their adolescence. These bonds with other people are a result of their brain’s exposure to social interaction.

The part of the brain that is responsible for decoding social interactions is the frontal lobe. It is responsible for empathy and understanding of unspoken body language such as vocal tone and facial expression. Having a working comprehension of these socializing pillars are vital to a child’s success in their future relationships. The most significant period of growth for the frontal lobe is during a child’s early years. It is at this point that a child must exercise their ability to socialize with others. A child could face severe problems in their future if they have too much screen time, including an inability to understand critical social cues. For behavior that is genuine and honest, parents must ensure their toddlers are exercising social skills while limiting their use of smart devices.

Creates Unhealthy Expectations

When a child interacts with a smart device, all of their gestures and actions receive instant feedback and response. You may notice that if you are reading a book to your child, they may try and swipe to the next page or click on the picture with their finger. The reason they do this is that they have grown to expect the same response from real-life objects as they do from their smart device. Games and apps all make use of colorful and alluring sound effects that act as a reward system for your child. All of their actions are reinforced and promoted which rarely happens in day-to-day life.

In many cases, an app will hint at where a child should click to get the best response. When you take the device away, a child will expect rewards for their actions in everyday scenarios. This expectation can make disciplining them very difficult because they are so used to constant validation. This conditions the child to only want to learn if they are going to get a reward, which will cause negative consequences down the line. If a child does not get what they want in school, they will act out. They will become so used to the behaviors of an app that they will forget how different real life is. It will make their teenage years very difficult as they prepare for high-school and post-secondary education.

To stop your child from entering “zombie mode,” you must take control of their device habits. Try to enforce a strict weekly limit on their use. Toddlers should be limited to one hour of screen time per day. They should also be getting fresh air and physical activity. Too many hours glued to a device will hinder their sleep and energy levels. Through exercise and engagement, your child will gain healthy social, communication, and problem-solving skills.

What Can Parents Do About It?

So what can we do to ensure that our children are getting the experiences they need in order to develop into healthy and happy adults? Dr. Meghan Owenz, Ph.D, recommends spoiling your little ones.

Wait, what? Dr. Owenz who has earned advanced degrees in psychology and family therapy proposes an acronym: S.P.O.I.L. as a way of counteracting screen-time. SPOIL stands for:

  • Social (Bonding with caregivers, siblings and peers)
  • Play (Free play)
  • Outdoor
  • Independent (Independent work)
  • Literacy (Reading)

Let’s go through each one individually.

Social - One of the best learning tools that a child has is those around them, this includes adults, siblings, and even peers. In fact it has been shown that children under the age of 3 view screens largely as irrelevant. It has even been shown that children who are taught by the same adult onscreen and in person retained significantly more from the real person versus their on-screen image. Children ages 3-5 may benefit to a certain degree from certain types of programming such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. But, still the largest benefits come from co-viewing content with an adult, which in some ways eliminates what some parents see as the reason for putting a child in front of the screen in the first place.

On top of learning from those around them, parents, siblings and peers not only serve to be models for growing brains, they also provide bonding opportunities for children. These bonds, in turn, create a more well rounded individual seeing benefits not only academically, but also, emotionally.

Play - Dr. Owenz endorses play, specifically, free play, sometimes referred to as imaginative play. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) defines play as “an activity that is intrinsically motivated, entails active engagement, and results in joyful discovery. Play is voluntary and often has no extrinsic goals; it is fun and often spontaneous.”

Imaginative play is most widely known as ‘make believe’ and is something that most of us are familiar with. It’s differentiated from active play which could be anything from playing tag, playing a board game, or even actively reading. Imaginative play could be something as simple as pretending a Barbie is talking, to creating an entire world full with a backstory.

The benefits are even more pronounced when a child participates in imaginative play with a parent or another loved adult.

Outdoor - The benefits of playing outdoors cannot be overstated. And especially with our multi-screened world, the opportunity to stay sedentary is made all the easier.

Independent Work - Dr. Owenz advocates for something known as independent work. Whether it’s daily household chores, helping a sibling, or maintaining a hygiene routine, all these activities can help a child develop a feeling of self efficacy as well as other positive feelings about themselves. Owenz believes that daily independent work can help children with a sense of accomplishment and control.

Literacy - Literacy according to Dr. Owenz refers to anything that “helps a child to enjoy reading or writing”. Furthermore, she encourages an approach that is more hands off, similar to that found in Montessori schools stating that children can often be in charge of their own learning and investigation. Aside from all the obvious academic benefits, a somewhat surprising finding shows that exposure to works of fiction has been linked to increases in empathetic ability in children. This effect is demonstrated whether the child is being read to by an adult, they are reading themselves, or even if they are listening to an audiobook. Regardless of if it’s through traditional books, flash cards, or even listening to audio, all can act as gateways to literacy.

Implementing Dr. Owenz’ S.P.O.I.L. protocol as a way of limiting screen time not only has the benefit of reducing the amount of time that is being whittled away on a passive digital device, but also provides alternatives to digital dependency. If implemented in a way that let’s the child make choices for themselves, the transition to less screen time can be made very easily. In fact, if you’re running short on ideas, Dr. Owenz has a list of 1 million screenless activities for kids that provides some simple ‘go to’s’ when you are running short on time. Children can also benefit from planning these activities with their loved ones. Not only does this provide an added opportunity to bond, it gives a child a sense of control, as well as creates anticipation while simultaneously providing a sense of variety but also predictability in that it is scheduled.

One thing that isn’t mentioned in Dr. Owenz’ protocol is setting rules in regards to screen time. We cannot expect our child to never interact with a screen. Phones are ubiquitous, and tablets have made it into the classroom as a tool for overtaxed teachers. But, we can teach our children the pitfalls of screen time and encourage moderation in usage.

Toys for imaginative play

If you’re looking a toy that brings together multiple elements of Dr. Owenz’ S.P.O.I.L. protocol: look no further than Storypod, the screen-free audio play system for kids 0-9. Storypod features an interactive speaker activated by yarn figurines and read-along audiobooks to play children songs, tell them stories, play engaging educational content, and even ask them trivia questions they can answer by pressing buttons the device. While a child is playing with the figurines, the audio continues to play over the speaker, allowing time for imaginative play.

Some other great screen-free toys that touch on the protocol are Melissa and Doug’s offerings. They have many great toys that encourage children to use their imaginations in creative and fun ways, often using wood rather than plastic. Melissa and Doug are one of many companies that appear to have less screen time at the forefront of their mission.

If you’re looking for some of the old classics, you might consider anything from good old playdough to Legos. A recommendation for imaginative play if your child is having a hard time getting started is to give your child a broad goal that they can reach, such as “make a model your favorite building”, or “make a creature with a big nose and floppy ears”. In this way, if your child still has a degree of autonomy in what they are creating, but has something specific they are trying to make.

There’s also a lot of new toys that seek to engage children without screens. Some of our favorite toys include: the Lulu Jr. My Comic Book Kit, Raduga Grez building blocks, and the impossibly pricey, but super cool Lilliput play homes retro camper (on second thought, let’s just go camping instead!).

Final Thoughts

In this increasingly connected world, there are a lot of opportunities to use the technology that is available to us. Striking a proper balance is key to raising a healthy and happy child. We recognize that screens have benefits, but, it’s clear that they also have significant drawbacks, especially as it pertains to children. We can’t expect children to never interact with screens - that would be impractical - but we can set healthy limits, and provide other opportunities that stimulate young minds. By utilizing the tools we set forth in this article, we believe that we can raise happy, brain-healthy children that blossom into their best selves.