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This Is What Screen Time Really Does to Kids’ Brains

Screen time has unfortunately become a big part of childhood nowadays. Children of any age are spending hours in front of their smartphones, TVs and tablets which is not always a bad thing, as educational apps and shows can help them develop. However, according to several studies exposure to electronic media is also related to delayed cognitive development.

The US Department of Health says that most children spend about 7 hours a day in front of electronic media on average. Other statistical data shows that kids younger than 2 years play games on their iPads regularly and have playroom toys with touch screens, which is concerning.


Saturation and long-term consequences

According to Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, children hooked on tablets and smartphones are damaging their developing brains. Too much screen time “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,” he says. Parents who push for more screen time in order to give their kids an educational edge may be actually doing the opposite. The daily amount of screen time must always be kept in order.

Between birth and the age of 3, our brains develop quicker and are very sensitive to the environment. This is called the critical period in medical terms as the brain becomes the permanent foundation on which all functions are later built upon. In order for the neural networks to develop fully, a child needs specific outside stimuli. These rules have evolved over centuries of human evolution, but the stimuli are not present in touch screens. Spending too much time in front of screens causes developmental issues due to not enough stimuli from the outside world. The problem is that the developmental problems may stay forever.

The thousands of stimuli at your fingertips on tablets and smartphones is just what your kid needs to avoid. These devices are the ultimate shortcut tools – instead of a mother reading a bedtime story to her child, tablets can do the same. Instead of the child processing his mother’s voice, they do it on the smartphone and get lazy leading to the weakening of their cognitive muscles.

Trouble making friends

The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for decoding and comprehending social reactions. This is the place we use to empathize with others and take nonverbal cues while talking to someone. The frontal lobe also helps us recognize facial expressions and different tones of voice.

This part of the brain develops during the critical period and is dependent on authentic human interactions, not tablets or smartphones. Using these devices can dull your child’s empathetic abilities for good.

Life has no on\off switch

Of course, seeing a mother chuckle at the sight of her baby swiping through photos is cute, but it also points to something deeper in the child’s brain – an internalization that all actions have an immediate effect, while all stimuli have quick response.

This is true on the on-screen world, but not in the real world. When a finger swipes a photo and brings a slew of colors, shapes and sounds, the child’s brain responds by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Dopamine is highly addictive, and when a child gets used to it, it will prefer interaction with a smartphone or tablet instead of real connections. This pattern is similar to the effects of drugs and alcohol.

Don’t trash the tablets yet

Despite the danger they present, touch screens can be helpful as well. Once your child is over 2 years old, limited screen time can help develop coordination, quick reactions and can even improve its language skills. As with all other toys, smartphones and tablets should be used moderately and never replace human interaction. Limit your child’s use of touch screens to make the lines between the virtual and real world clear.

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