“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies but the period from birth to the age six” Maria Montessori
98% of the brain develops in the first five years. Parents and educators can create brain compatible environments to support this growth. The brain needs stimulation, complimented with brain compatible practices. Routines, rituals, stimulating toys, more choices, child led activities, open ended questions, logic games, toys, outdoor activities and more are many of the brain compatible practices to nurture brain development.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics states infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010).
Screens have become a babysitter or the third parent for many parents and families, but this result is definitely worrisome because it means that at the crucial brain development age our children are actually being exposed to unhealthy habits that lead to weak neural structures. What we are dealing with is a different kind of ‘brain drain’. We are draining the brain before it is built so the foundation of life skills, learning, memory, health, language, social skills are all affected and this leads to fractured childhood and children who will grow up to be weak in all areas and aspects required for life and learning.
According to Maria Montessori there are 6 sensitive periods during the early years which are crucial to the all round development of children, in neuro science circles this is what is called the critical period:
- Sensitivity to learning through the senses- sensory perception
- Sensitivity to language
- Sensitivity to order
- Sensitivity to small objects- small detail
- Sensitivity to walking- movement
- Sensitivity to the social aspects of life
I will now detail how each of these critical periods is affected due to exposure to screens and technology.
When very small children get hooked on tablets and smartphones, says Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, they can unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains. Too much screen time too soon, he says, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. 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.” Between birth and age three, for example, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. (sensitivity to learning through sensory perception)
Learning through story telling v/s screen based story telling- Technology exposure too early can impact many cognitive skills in children. For example when a screen is used to tell stories to young toddlers then it feeds images, words, picutures and motion all at the same time, so something like ready- made thinking and imagination. But when an adult tells a story to a toddler the toddler brain would have to process the language, imagine the visuals, and exert some effort to follow the story, no ready-made thinking so this would exercise their cognitive muscles. With screen stories their cognitive muscles remain weak. (sensitivity to small objects- sensitivity to details )
Language development is crucial in toddlers and language is about having a conversation, language development cannot be a one-way process. Due to too much technology exposure, children are not spending enough time with other humans and instead are spending time with machines. Their language development would naturally suffer because of lack of ‘serve and return’ interactions, screens are a one way traffic so naturally children who grow up with screens as companions lack the necessary social skills to take part in conversations, they learn that if you don’t like it- change it with a swipe or a remote! (sensitivity to language)
Children are being pacified with screens so we are bonding them to machines instead of emotions! They naturally become materialistic because it is the screens that calmed them, cajoled them and not the humans. So human touch, empathy are all being reduced. If a child is calmed when upset with a screen then attachment is to the inanimate object and not a human being, as the child grows older the attachment will transfer to other things like drugs instead of seeking human help.
When young babies and children are exposed to screen voices, screen instructions more than real life voices and conversations, they naturally get attached and give more importance to screen world, a living example of it is the recent ‘blue whale’ addiction. It has its roots in childhood screen addiction. Today the screens and the world within are controlling these teenagers.
The brain’s pre frontal cortex or the thinking brain is the area responsible for understanding social interactions. This part of the brain is the seat of empathy, non-verbal communication, logic, and understanding about the world. And this part of the brain develops during toddler years, and is dependent on human interactions. So if toddlers spends all the time with technology instead of playing, talking, interacting with humans then this part of the brain , so essential for future relationships , will be dulled, possibly for good. (sensitivity to social interactions)
Have you noticed how young toddlers who are exposed to screens, use the swipe motion even when given a book? well, it may look ‘aww, so cute’ to adults but it is a grave sign of addiction to technology and an ‘internalization’ which leads to ‘instant gratification’- that all my actions will have an immediate effect/response. This quick response that they get from screens also gives the a quick dose of ‘dopamine’ a brain chemical that is associated with feelings of pleasure- thus the addiction to technology. But in real life when they don’t get ‘quick results’ or ‘cant change things as they want’ or ‘stop looking at what they don’t want to’ then this lack of ‘instant results’ and ‘pleasure chemical’ can lead to many disorders.
Many parents want to take the screens away from the toddlers but when they do, it results in complete mayhem as toddler breaks into uncontrollable tantrums! And parents who are unable to calm them down, commit the grave error of giving them the screen just to pacify them. It’s important to understand why this happens- two parts of the brain are involved when your child is using a screen:
- the visual system and 2. The vestibular system
so the visual system has to work overtime to take in all the stimuli that come from technology, in kids the visual system is still at the developing stage and this makes the brain work in ‘overdrive’ to keep up with the oncoming images, sounds etc. this means the brain is working in a hyper mode.
Now the visual system is closely linked to the vestibular system, have you noticed how a toddler using a screen, can see nothing else and is completely focused on the screen? The vestibular system also has a significant impact on mood. So your hyper focused visual system locked up the vestibular system and your child was in a ‘no mood’ zone.
Now when you take away the screen, the visual system that was on hyperactive mode goes from ‘100 to 0’ in a spilt second and because it is released now it releases the vestibular system, so your child goes from ‘no mood’ to ‘too much emotion’ and all hell breaks loose. Your child does not know what to do with so much hyper focus and nothing to focus on and thus the huge tantrum! Because the brain is still in the hyper mode and has nothing to process your child will go berserk trying to calm a hyper brain!
The solution according to experts is to reset the brain. Get your child moving. Jump, swing, and run around. The vestibular system is in charge of motion so these kind of linear acceleration activities will reset the vestibular system and calm the entire body.
Learning in toddlers can be damaged by technology but sadly we cannot keep technology away from our toddlers as they are born in a ‘tech bubble’, so I urge parents and teachers to do the following so that learning and brain growth are not affected in toddlers:
- Do not give hand held screens to children below the age of 2 years. Because the young brain is developing at a fast rate during these years and you are actually ‘killing’ neurons with screen exposure. If you are unable to do it then put the screen on airplane mode so that the harmful microwaves emanating from them don’t harm your child. Limit to two 15 minute slots per day
- Ensure that the content is non-violent and pro social. Maximum discipline issues happen when kids watch violent or abusive content, and since children learn by imitation they mimic these in their behavior.
- Be with your child during the screen viewing time and chat with your child during the show. This is because face to face conversations are a must in the early years to build the foundation of social skills, television is a one way process and so children don’t learn important social skills like waiting for the other person to speak.
- Absolutely no screen time 3 hours before bedtime. The excessive blue light emanating from screens affects melatonin production thus reducing sleep in young babies and toddlers and making them cranky and unfocussed all the time. Sleep disruption also affects growth hormone.
- Avoid any kind of technology during meal time, meal time is a sensory process that starts with the taste in the mouth and the process of seeing different colours on the plate and feeling the same in the mouth. When children are hooked on a screen during meal time they lose out on the sensory experience that aids the release of digestive juices and may chew less or eat more leading to digestive and obesity issues.
- After playing with handheld screens ensure that your child is engaged in some sort of high physical activity like jumping, skipping etc. so that the extremely high focus reached by the brain during screen time is clamed down to avoid tantrums and a feeling of suddenly being bereft of stimulation. Ensure that babies and toddlers get at least 3 hours of physical play /outdoors play time.
- Children are great imitators and if they see you addicted to screens then they will follow in your footsteps. When interacting with your child do not have screens as the third party! Can you ask a child to keep away from sugar while you are merrily chomping on a bar of chocolate?
- Never use screens as a pacifier to calm them during a tantrum or to make them eat or listen to you or as a baby sitter as this makes them lose out on human emotional bonds and makes them connect to materialistic satisfaction of their emotions.
- The first 3 to 6 years are critical for brain development and brain requires hands-on stimuli, face-to-face conversations, and opportunities to think, explore and listen to new words. Ensure that you include story telling, rhymes, non-battery toys, and outdoor time in your child’s daily routine. Check out activities given on www.born-smart.com
The author, Dr. Swati Popat Vats is the President of Early Childhood Association (www.eca-india.org) and the Director of Podar Jumbo Kids Preschools and Daycares. She is also a parenting mentor and is the parenting expert on a unique parenting initiative called Born Smart, www.born-smart.comDr.Swati Popat Vats