We all want our children to be happy and successful in life. So, we do things like buying them a smartphone or tablet, even at an early age. This way, we think, they will get a head start in the digital world we live in. Unfortunately, from early childhood through the teenage years these devices can result in serve problems if used in excess. Recent scientific studies show that too much “screen time” impairs brain development in very young children and causes structural damage in teenagers.
In the years before attending school children’s brains are steadily developing. Their attention spans increase along with their ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Their vocabularies increase and they develop the ability to sense the attitudes of others. The subtleties of person to person communication take hold before a child even attends school. These are all results of using the brain in a normal manner in a healthy setting.
Unfortunately, too much time spent with a touchscreen device can impair normal brain development.! The problem, according to researchers, is that many children spend too much time playing with, watching, and interacting with computer tablets and smartphones to give their brains the time needed (biologically) to process the information and stimuli they are receiving. Contrast this experience with something from your own childhood and the difference is clear.
A tradition in many homes is the bedtime story. This may involve reading a book or a picture book for little kids. Or it may mean a “made up” story with favorite “made up” characters. In either case, the pace is slow. The setting is quiet with no distractions. And, kids get to “play out” parts of the story or “read it again.” Growing brains need simple stories, lots of repetition, and time to process! Because the program on the tablet or smartphone moves ahead at its own pace instead of the child’s, the child’s developing brain gets “lazy.” The child learns to be passive and let the stimuli flow over them, never learning to question or ask for explanations. In other words, the child is not learning to think.!
Exercising the Brain “Muscles” of Social Interaction and Communication
Throughout life, we all do better with social interactions and communication if we spend time with other people. And, these basic skills are learned early in life. Time spent looking at the screen of a computer tablet or smartphone does not “exercise” the part of the frontal lobe responsible for learning to relate emotion to physical signs in another person. At an extreme level, this makes children unable to anticipate dangerous situations. On an everyday level, it affects the ability to empathize, show compassion, and develop meaningful interpersonal relationships.
Researchers have discovered that children with addictions to electronic devices and games actually have reduced gray matter and white matter in their frontal cortex (front of the brain).
The gray matter of the brain is where processing occurs. The parts of the brain affected by so-called gaming addictions are responsible for impulse control, organizing, planning, and setting priorities. Additional skills that may be affected include the ability to suppress socially inappropriate impulses.
The white matter of the brain is the communication network. Children who have reduced white matter are not able to connect well between the primitive “survival” areas of the lower brain and the “cognitive” areas of the frontal lobes.
The end result of much of this damage is the inability to effectively process information and control impulses. Kids with these sorts of damage do not learn from positive experiences because their “wiring” for rewards is impaired. Likewise, they do not learn from negative experiences because their “loss” wiring is impaired as well. These problems end up damaging the ability to carry out tasks to a successful completion.
What Kind of Screen Time and How Much Are OK?
Children use computer tablets in school and at home. These devices have lots of constructive programs and uses. And, the way the brain reacts to an educational program is different from how it reacts to a game that was designed to be addictive in the first place. Researchers have shown that the chemical dopamine is released in the brain during gaming. This is a “reward” substance that the brain wants more and more of. The quest for more and more dopamine leads to addiction. The quest for dopamine makes the brain focus only on what it needs to do to win the game and not use the other parts of the brain necessary for development. But, the issue is not the game. It is the time spent.
Playing video games can be a lot of fun and too much playing becomes an addiction. Your child is addicted to video games to the extent that they are preoccupied with the game, are unable to leave it alone, and are experiencing problems because of their playing. Obviously, someone who spends a few minutes playing a computer game is not addicted. Someone who spends hours playing games is not doing household chores or homework, and is in danger of flunking out of school has a problem.
There is little research on how much “screen time” is safe for brain development. However, when most of the “screen time” is computer games and when the games take up most of the day, that is probably excessive. Kids need social interaction and physical exercise. Those should take up more time than computer gaming and not vice versa. The brain of a child needs the proper sorts of exercise and these are crowded out by too many hours of “screen time.”
A common problem with autism and screen time is that children who have an autism spectrum disorder have excessive sensitivity to digital device stimuli.
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