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This article was published on March 21, 2016

Tykes and tablets: Is too much screen time damaging your child’s brain?

Tykes and tablets: Is too much screen time damaging your child’s brain?
Liraz Margalit
Story by

Liraz Margalit

Liraz Margalit, PhD, is resident psychologist at ClickTale, which provides website optimization software and consulting. She previously held Liraz Margalit, PhD, is resident psychologist at ClickTale, which provides website optimization software and consulting. She previously held a post-doctoral internship with the Program of Political Psychology and Decision Making at the Lauder School of Government - IDC (Herzlia), where she is a lecturer.

Let’s face it – screen time is an inescapable reality of modern parenting, with kids of every age spending hours upon hours in front of iPads, smartphones and televisions. And that’s not always a bad thing.

Educational apps and kiddie-geared TV shows are great ways for little ones to sharpen their developing brains and hone quick communication skills (not to mention the much-needed break these gadgets can provide harried parents!).

But before you employ your Xbox as a babysitter, tread carefully. A number of troubling studies connect delayed cognitive development in kids with extended exposure to electronic media, with the data all seeming to point to the same core issue: too much of a good thing. The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that American children spend a whopping seven hours a day in front of electronic media, and other statistics say that kids as young as two years old are regularly playing iPad games and have playroom toys that involve touch screens.

Screen saturation can have long-term consequences

When very small children get hooked on tablets and smartphones, says Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of British Psychological Society and Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, they can unintentionally cause permanent damage to their little ones’ still-developing brains.

Too much screen time too soon, Sigman says, “Is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets,” he explains. “The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary – all those abilities are harmed.”

girl, ipad, tech

Put more simply, parents who jump to screen time in a bid to give their kids an educational edge may actually end up doing significantly more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that tablet toys are bad, but it does mean that parents need to dole out screen time in an age-appropriate matter.

Between birth and age three, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. In medical circles, this is called the critical period, aptly named because the changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later years’ brain function is built upon.

In order for the brain’s neural networks to develop normally during the critical period, a child needs specific stimuli from the outside environment. These are rules that evolved over centuries of human evolution, and – not surprisingly – those stimuli are not found in today’s tablet screens. When a young child spends too much time in front of a tablet and not enough getting the required stimuli from the real world, her development becomes stunted.

And not just for a while. If the damage happens during these crucial early years, its results will affect her forever.

A lot of the issue lies with the fact that that what makes tablets and iPhones so great – dozens of stimuli at your fingertips, and the ability to process multiple actions simultaneously – is exactly what young brains do not need.

young girl, ipad, tech

Tablets are the ultimate shortcut tools: Unlike a mother reading a story to a child, for example, a smartphone-told story spoon feeds images, word and pictures all at once to a young reader. Rather than having to take the time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualize complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a story line, kids who follow stories on their smartphones get to be lazy. The smartphone does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.

Trouble making friends

The brain’s frontal lobe is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions. It is in this corner of our minds that we empathize with others, take in nonverbal cues while talking to friends and colleagues, and learn how to read the hundreds of unspoken signs – facial expression, tone of voice, and more – that add color and depth to relationships in the real world.

So how and when does the brain’s frontal lobe develop? Not surprisingly, the most crucial stage happens in early childhood, during that same critical period, and it is dependent on human interactions. So if your young child is spending all of his time in front of his iPad instead of chatting and playing with teachers and other children, his empathetic abilities – the near-instinctive way you and I can read situations and get a feel for other people – will be dulled, possibly forever.

Life has no on/off switch

Have you ever seen a mother chuckle as her baby tries to “swipe” a real photograph, or punch their fingers onto a poster or book as if it were a touchscreen? It’s a cute action, certainly, but it points to something much deeper in that child’s brain – an internalization that all actions have an immediate effect, and all stimuli elicit a quick response.

This is true in the on-screen world, but nowhere else. When every finger swipe brings about a response of colors and shapes and sounds, a child’s brain responds gleefully with the neurotransmitter dopamine, the key component in our reward system that is associated with feelings of pleasure. Dopamine hits to the brain can feel almost addictive, so when a child gets too used to an immediate stimuli response, he will learn to always prefer a smartphone-style interaction (immediate gratification and response) over a real-world one.

boys, iphone, tech, kids

This pattern mimics, in a less intense manner, the dangerous cycle psychologist and physicians regularly see in patients who have drug and alcohol addiction.

But don’t trash those tablets for good

Despite the danger that overexposure to smartphones can pose for little brains, there are also a lot of benefits to letting little ones use technology. Once your child is over the age of two, feel free to allow limited screen time – playing with tablets and iPhones for a short time period each day (think an hour, max) can help develop coordination, hone quick reactions, and even sharpen language skills. Like all the other toys and tools available to your developing child, smartphones should be utilized in moderation, and should never stand in for human interaction or real-world face time.

The bottom line? Make sure you power off regularly and help your child understand the clear boundaries between the virtual world and the real world. That’s the smartest way to use your smartphone with a developing child.

Read next: The Web is quietly creating a generation of miserable kids

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