Parents who fear their kids are spending too much time in front of screens now have more reason for concern. If you’re a parent of young children living in the mobile internet era, it’s hard to resist not handing over a smartphone or a tablet to keep kids entertained when you really need them to be the sweet, quiet little angels you wish that they could be pretty much all the time. There are all sorts of great video and gaming apps designed for kids anyway, so why not?
It’s not the kid-friendly content you have to worry about – it’s the effect of excessive amounts of screen time your kids are being exposed to on a regular basis. The younger they are while their brains are developing rapidly, the more adverse the effects may be. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents of infants and children under the age of two should avoid exposing them to smartphones, tablets, computers, televisions and anything else that serves to entertain people through a screen.
Children who are older may benefit from apps and mobile websites that promote learning, but there’s no question that frequent and prolonged use of mobile devices may create problems in normal, healthy development and everyday habits. Here are some of the things you need to be aware of if you’re a parent who lets their kids play with smartphones or tablets.
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.”
Put more simply, parents who jump to screen time in a bid to give their kids an educational edge may actually be doing significantly more harm than good—and they need to dole out future screen time in an age-appropriate matter.
Between birth and age three, for example, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. In medical circles, this is called the critical period, because the changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built. In order for the brain’s neural networks to develop normally during the critical period, a child needs specific stimuli from the outside environment. These are rules that have evolved over centuries of human evolution, but—not surprisingly—these essential stimuli are not found on today’s tablet screens. When a young child spends too much time in front of a screen and not enough getting required stimuli from the real world, her development becomes stunted.
And not just for a while. If the damage happens during these crucial early years, its results can affect her forever.
Much of the issue lies with the fact that what makes tablets and iPhones so great—dozens of stimuli at your fingertips, and the ability to process multiple actions simultaneously—is exactly what young brains do not need.
Tablets are the ultimate shortcut tools: Unlike a mother reading a story to a child, for example, a smartphone-told story spoon-feeds images, words, and pictures all at once to a young reader. Rather than having to take the time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualize complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a storyline, kids who follow stories on their smartphones get lazy. The device does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.