The Indoor Generation: when is technology toxic for the young brain?

Children are spending more time in front of screens and at younger ages, than ever before. In the past 10 years, smart phones have gone from being a luxury to a necessity! These smart phones, tablets and other devices present both opportunities as well as challenges for parents introducing media to their children for the first time.

So what does research say about screen time? How can we as parents manage the amount of screen time that our children are exposed to in today’s world? How can we be better role-models in today’s digital-age? How much is too much? It’s a question I’m asked almost daily by parents in my field of practice.

What happens in the brain?

Whilst a person engages with technology, the brain releases a neuro-chemical known as dopamine. This is also known as “the feel good” chemical. This chemical plays a major role in reward-motivated behaviour. Scientific experts have coined the idea of a “digital drug” which is simply the overuse of technology. This digital drug can be just as addictive as any deadly drug as we get hooked on the feeling we get whilst using technology which keeps us coming back for more.

What does research say? How much is too much for the young brain?

Developing brains, specifically those of infants and young children (ages 0-3) are delicate and should be treated with the utmost care. Scientists in the field of paediatrics have proven that the use of technology before 18 months can lead to social problems, corrupted language development, sleep, and obesity issues later in life.

A study conducted by Dimitri Christakis et al. (Department of Paediatrics, University of Washington) hypothesized that very early exposure to television during the critical period of synaptic development in a child’s brain could be associated with subsequent attention problems later on. Their findings not only confirmed this, but also showed that for each additional hour of daily television that a child was exposed to, increased their risk of attention difficulties by 10%.

It is believed that over 90% of parents allow their children to engage with digital technology before the age of one. Therefore, in an effort to help families curb screen time usage, groups such as the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have released screen-time guidelines.  These guidelines suggest the following:

  • Babies younger than 18 months should have no screen time at all. The exception to this rule is video chatting with grandparents or other family friends, which is considered quality time interacting with others.
  • Parents of toddlers 18 to 24 months old who want to introduce digital media should opt for high-quality programming where they can co-watch, helping them to understand what they are seeing.
  • Similarly, children aged 2 to 5 years old should be limited to no more than 1 hour per day and parents should help them to apply what they’re watching to the world around them.
  • For children aged 6 years and older, it is recommended that consistent limits are set when it comes to media exposure including type and time. Consider the quality of the media they’re exposed to, how it fits into your family’s lifestyle, and how you engage your kids with it. Parents should also ensure that media does not replace adequate sleep, physical activity and other essential healthy behaviours.

What type of media is GOOD?

The idea of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing – even the AAP, whose screen time rules had always been strictly age-based, is recognising that not all screen time is created equal.

For example, you and your child playing an interactive colour/shape game on a tablet or watching high-quality educational programming together is classed as good screen time. However, simply leaving your child for hours in front of the TV whilst you have a social gathering with your friends or to simply ‘free your hands’ would be classed as bad screen time. Similarly, parents who reward their children with screens for good behaviour or to simply calm their child are enabling impaired brain development.

Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in the concept of “digital nutrition” says “we know that using screens to soothe or pacify kids sets up some concerning patterns of relying on devices to calm or distract a child from their experience of unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions. So we want to avoid using screens to placate tantrums, just like we want to avoid eating ‘treats’ to calm emotional storms.”

Screen use TIPS

  • Choose top-notch children’s content. There are thousands of apps and games that claim to be educational, but not all of them are. Websites like also provide suggestions for quality children’s media experiences.
  • Make media-time ‘minds-on’ time! The screen experience should focus a child’s attention on a learning goal. Avoid apps with lots of “bells and whistles” that distract children from the educational content.
  • Choose interactive experiences. Look for media that ask a child to participate (give feedback or take an action) and that use strong story lines.
  • Help children connect what they see on a screen with real life. If a game on a tablet has a child moving a ball by dragging his finger, then roll, throw, and bounce balls in the real world! Point out and label objects that children have seen on screens, like animals or vehicles. Use the counting skills your child practiced online as you both count plates to set the dinner table.
  • Use screens to help develop language skills. Share media experiences with your child to enhance learning. Ask questions. Talk about the story or characters in the game. Describe what you see on-screen.
  • Balance coping skills. Ultimately, we want our children to be able to amuse themselves in a variety of settings and with different tools, even if they only have their imaginations. Make sure they’re equally comfortable with picture books, music and crayons as they are with tablets and TV’s.
  • Limit screen time to ensure lots of ‘real world’ play time. It has been proven that young children learn more quickly and efficiently by exploring objects and interacting with people. Never under-estimate the benefits of quality one-on-one time with your child.
  • Build positive habits. Remember that children develop routines/habits quickly. If they associate going to restaurants, driving in a car or waiting in a doctor’s room with playing games on your phone, ultimately you’re enabling this negative association and it’ll only be more difficult to try to shake this habit.
  • Remember that you’re their role model.  Children learn their behaviour from you. Consider narrating your use of the phone (“I’m texting your dad to remind him to pick up milk”) so they can understand the utility of the tool.
  • Designate ‘media-free’ zones with your family, such as in the car, during dinner time, in bedrooms etc.
  • Turn off the television while children play or when no one is watching, and during daily routines like mealtime.
  • Pay attention to how your kids act during and after watching TV, playing video games or simply hanging-out with their friends on social media. If they’re using high-quality, age-appropriate media for a respectable amount of time, their behaviour should be positive.

For more inspiration take a look at this video:

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