You are concerned that your child’s brain development is changing because they are leading a ‘digitalised childhood’. You are worried. And rightly so. But the good news is that you don’t need to be. I’m here to explain things.
The headlines decry, ”Technology is re-wiring kids’ brains.” Today’s digital generation are growing up in a world that pings, beeps and flashes. Screens and devices saturate their daily lives. Today’s children know how to pinch, swipe and zoom and often before they have learnt to walk or talk.
And this worries many parents and teachers.
So it won’t come as a surprise to know that some of the most frequently asked questions I have from concerned parents and teachers are:
Are digital devices having an adverse effect on child brain development?
What do children’s brains really need for optimal development?
Let me start by re-assuring you that it is not all doom and gloom. We have increasing research evidence that shows us that when technology is used in intentional and developmentally-appropriate ways that young children can learn with and benefit from technology. Phew! You can breathe a sigh of relief as you pass over your iPad to your toddler.
But before you race off to buy your toddler a laptop or an iPotty (yes, these devices really do exist), there are some absolutely vital things that parents must first consider. I like to call these the ‘brain basics’.
Thanks to advances in neuro- and developmental science, we now know more than ever about child brain development. And despite being neuroscience you’ll be pleased to know that it actually isn’t rocket science. In fact, it’s really very simple. The way our grandparents parented is in fact the ideal model. The researchers call this ‘ancestral parenting’. These are the basic things that brains need to develop. And despite living in a digital world, these brain basics have remained unchanged. Child brain development is much the same as it always been, but we now have digital devices to contend with.
Neuroscience tells us that 85% of a child brain development occurs by the time children are 3 years of age. In fact during the first few years of life, 700 new synapses (brain connections) are formed every second. Over time these connections are reduced through a process called ‘pruning’, so that brain circuits can become more efficient. So those circuits that are not used are pruned through lack of use. So it is absolutely essential that we provide the right types of experiences early on in a child’s life if we want to optimise, not hamper, child brain development. These are the building blocks for brains.
So what does ‘ancestral’ parenting look like in a digital world?
Three Essential Building Blocks for Child Brain Development:
These are the essential building blocks for learning in a digital age. You will see that they are not complicated. And chances are this is how your parents or grandparents would have parented. [I know, I know I can already hear my Mum’s voice saying, “In my day…”]
It is essential that children form loving, stable and close attachments to their parents or care-givers for optimal brain development. Young children need relationships. When children have strong attachments to adults it frees up the brain to focus on other important areas of development. Stressed or anxious brains cannot learn. Secure and happy brains can learn.
Technology can foster relationships. We have new communication tools like Skype that allow young children to form relationships with family members who live interstate or abroad. I know that when my son was 18 months-old, he loved his weekly Skype calls with his great-Grandmother who lived inter-state. They would sing nursery rhymes and songs over Skype. It was brilliant!
We also have amazing book apps with built-in video chat windows so you can be reading your child their bedtime book whilst you are traveling overseas for work. Magic!
However, when technology is used excessively, it can hamper the development of relationships. Too much screen time can displace opportunities for building relationships. When children are using a screen they are often not engaging in face-to-face, real-time conversations with other people. We must think carefully about helping children manage their media consumption, so that they do not use technology excessively. This is why today’s children need media diets. As parents, we must also teach children not to constantly rely on technology to pacify or entertain them (there is nothing wrong with being bored, in fact this is essential). We need to teach children how they can manage media and not let media manage them.
It is critical that young children are exposed to and use as much language as possible for optimal brain development. A child’s vocabulary is a very good indicator of their later academic success. Sadly, we know that by 18-months of age, there are stark differences between children’s vocabulary scores and this gap continues to widen as they get older.
So does this mean we should ban TV and iPads? No. Instead, we need to try, where possible, to co-view with our children when they are using technology. That means watching and using technology with your child. It might mean watching TV or playing a video game with your child. When you use technology with your child, there is usually some to-and-fro interaction and this is exactly what developing brains need. Serve-and-return interactions. Co-viewing helps children to connect what they are seeing on a screen to real life. It also stops the ‘zombie effect’ where children become transfixed by what is on-screen. [Have you ever tried to talk to your child while they are playing a video game? If so, you know what I am talking about.]
We also need to minimise the times that technology is used as a digital baby-sitter. [Now before you panic and think that you have ‘ruined’ your child because they watch TV while you prepare dinner, rest assured that this is highly unlikely. As a parent I understand that co-viewing is not always possible. But when it is possible, try to use media with your child.]
As parents, we also need to look for opportunities for children to collaborate with siblings or peers when they use technology. Children need to talk when they are using gadgets, not sit there passively and consume. When children use media with others it forces them to communicate and use language. There is a range of fantastic apps that encourage children to interact and use language. Many of the apps by Toca Boca encourage interaction and enable young children to engage in play (which has been proven to develop language skills).
There are also some fantastic apps that allow children to very easily create digital stories. Storytelling is a wonderful way to support children’s language development. Toontastic is a brilliant app that allows children to create, publish and share very professional-looking, animated stories.
As a parent I don’t need to remind you about how important sleep is for child brain development. In fact, it is essential for all of us (ask any sleep-deprived parent and they’ll reiterate this). It is essential for learning and memory consolidation. However, digital technologies have the potential to cause sleep problems for children (and for us adults).
In today’s digitally-saturated world, there are many new devices and screens that tempt young children before bedtime. To further complicate matters we now have a range of devices like video game consoles and tablets that appeal to young children (and adults). And these devices are also very mobile so they can easily sneak into bedrooms. We know that screen-time in the 90 minutes before bed can cause sleep delays and over time these accumulate and result in a sleep deficit.
Rapid-fire TV or fast-paced video games may over-stimulate young children and activate areas of the brain that require more passive activities before the onset of sleep. We also know that the blue light emitted from screens also effects the production of melatonin, which is needed to induce sleep.
So what can you do?
The best solution is to avoid the use of screens in the 90 minutes before bedtime. Alternatively, you can turn down the brightness of the screen. And if that’s not possible, try to reduce the use of fast-paced TV programs and games before bed. So there are three simple building blocks for child brain development in a digital age.
As you can see, these brain basics have not deviated too much from the way your parents or grandparents parented. We now have digital devices to fit into the picture as we navigate this digital terrain. These gadgets are here to stay (the iPad won’t be un-invented). So rather than fearing these technologies, we need to look for ways to leverage them.
How can we use technology with young children in ways that will support and enhance their brain development, not stifle it?
Tell me below, did you realise child brain development was so simple? How do you use technology with your children to promote healthy brain development?