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Are Screens Breaking Kids' Brains?

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Are screens breaking kids' brains? Let's listen to the screen time experts below and the key takeaways from their discussion.

Key Individuals (Screen Time Experts):

  • Taylor Owen - Founding director of The Center for Media, Technology, and Democracy (Screen Time Expert)
  • Nicole Edwards - Tech journalist and podcast producer 
  • Dr. Michael Rich - Director of the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children's Hospital (Mediatrician)
  • Dr. John Hutton - A pediatrician and a clinical researcher at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital
  • Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek - A Professor of Psychology and Director of the Infant Language Laboratory at Temple University

Key Takeaways about Screens

  • Devices and screens are embedded into all of our lives. They're not extraneous items we use from time to time. They're crutches that help us parent and fill the needs and struggles that all parents face.
  • Screen time and neurological development researchers agree that screen time for children under two should be extremely limited and avoided if possible.
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Intro

  • This podcast discusses the rise in screen time and how it affects the development of kids’ brains.

Parenting style and screen time

  • It's becoming normal for parents to allow kids as young as a few weeks old to experience screen time. Based on conversations with parents, tech journalist Nicole Edwards stated parents know that screen time for young kids is not recommended. Some parents shared doctors have advised them to keep their kids off screens, but they choose to ignore professional advice.
  • A common misconception by parents is that screen time today is the same as when they were kids. They do not consider that screen time has evolved in terms of the types of screens and, most importantly, what content is on the screen.
  • Parents are busy. A common crutch for many parents is to turn on the television or hand their child the iPad so they can do what they need to do, like get dinner on the table. 
  • Parents forget to consider what would be more interesting and beneficial to the child. Putting a child on the floor with a bowl, a wooden spoon, and some flour allows the child to explore, experiment, and develop. Parents are not doing enough of this these days.

Screen time behavior 

  • Not all TV is the same. Sesame Street is educational and offers a more elevated viewing experience than pure entertainment shows.
  • Edwards interviewed a 4-year-old boy, Otis, who has had a tablet since the age of 3 and absolutely loves it. When Otis was asked, "What's more fun? Your tablet, or Mommy and Daddy? He responded, his tablet.
  • It is surprising how much of the day kids spend on screens. Otis shared the frequency of using his device and stated "Sometimes before dinner, sometimes before lunch, sometimes in between, and when I brush my teeth."

Dr. Michael Rich on screens and brain development

  • The human brain is embryonic when we're born. Unlike animals, we have virtually no circuits dedicated to survival.
  • In the first two or three years of life, we are not building new knobs so much as we are building synaptic connections.
  • This phenomenon is called plasticity. It is the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections.
  • Dr. Rich highlights that there's a distinction between a child watching TV versus using a tablet in their early years. What really matters is the screen time given to kids and playing outside in the real world.

What Dr. Rich suggests is that in the early years, kids learnfrom every interaction they have. While iPads provide the convenience of active interactions, it's far better to allow kids to play outside and get a sense of their environment. Tablets and TV don't have that tactical response which is way more important for a child's growth and learning. 

John Hutton on screen time

  • Dr. Hutton published his first study on preschool children aged three to five years old. The study used a modality called Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which specifically looks at the wiring in the brain and the interconnections, called white matter.
  • In the study, they conducted scans of different parts of the brain and asked parents questions about their child's digital media use.They detereminedthe child’s access to screens, including whether he or she had screens in the bedroom, how often the child uses screens, whether he or she watches with a parent, and what kind of content the child engaged with. 
  • The study found that kids who were  allowed more screen time, a screen in their bedroom, and watching TV without a parent had significant differences in their brain's white matter connections and wiring. 
  • The research looked at areas involving language and literacy and found that kids with elevated screen time had lower measures of these white matter connections in their brain.

The study was one snapshot in time.The researchers were uncertain when these white matter effects began. The study did show definitive evidence that there are fundamental differences in how brains mature in relation to more or less screen use.

The same study found kids that had lower measures of white matter maturity also had lower scores on tests of language, executive function, and early reading. 

The study concluded that children’s screen time behaviors are directly linked to brain development and cognitive abilities.

How to deal with reality, according to Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek

Dr. Hirsch-Pasek stated that when she was growing up, the world was curated by parents. However, this is no longer the case. Now kids spend considerable time in front of screens. In the world she grew up in, families had a single spot where a TV was situated. The world today has mobile phones and screens are not situated in a single place. Apps, games, and entertainment are everywhere and available at all times. These key features make the world that she grew up in fundamentally and quintessentially different from the world children of today grow up in.

How to evaluate screen time quality, following the four pillars by Dr. Hirsch-Pasek 

  1. Is it active or passive?
  2. Is it engaging?
  3. Is it meaningful to that child?
  4. Is there social interaction?

There are great entertainment apps and shows, including the Toca Boca series, Daniel Tiger, Sesame Street, and PBS. Common sense can help you navigate what's good and what isn't.

Conclusion

  • The quality of screen time varies. 
  • Parents need to monitor the content of what their kids watch and help them achieve balance. 
  • Parents need to put limits on the amount of time their kids spend on devices.
  • Everyone is trying their best. No one does this perfectly.
  • Parents need to connect with their kids. 
  • To learn more about screen time and its impact on your child's brain development, listen to the full podcast here by Screen Time.

Also Read: Top 10 Educational Apps for Kids

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