Have you ever used your smartphone, iPad, or the TV to entertain your child while you get things done? I have. And while many of us have assumed it’s probably not the best thing for our kids, it’s not until recently that we’ve been able to monitor it’s effects on a child’s brain development. Since a child’s brain is developing more rapidly than their body, I thought this was something we all should pay some attention.
Dr. Patricia Kuhl is the lead on researching that question among many others. A Professor of Speech and Hearing Sciences and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, she is also the first to use a machine called the magnetoencaphalograph, or MEG. This extraterrestrial looking machine measures the brain’s magnetic field from outside the head. Because it can effectively scan images in moving patients, this is the first machine to monitor a young child’s brain in their waking hours.
Dr. Kuhl was so kind to answer some questions for us in between her many speaking engagements.
Dr. Kuhl, how does our modern world of technology affect a child’s brain development? Language development?
During childhood, children’s brains are rapidly developing and forming connections based on their experiences and interactions. Both good and bad experiences will strengthen connections in the brain if they happen frequently. When a child engages in activities such as sports, music lessons, or learning a new skill, they are building those connections in their brain. For infants and toddlers, learning in the context of social interactions with other people is especially important for brain development.
Children are growing up in a world where screens are everywhere. One of the main concerns in our modern world of media is that time spent with media is time spent away from other activities important for brain growth and development. This is called displacement. For example, one concern is that children are passively watching television and not engaging their brain as they would during interactions with other people. However, interactive media may affect us differently than passive viewing. Recent research shows that toddlers can learn new words by video chatting with another adult, but they have difficulty learning the same words from watching a traditional video. Research on children’s ability to learn from interactive media such as iPads and iPhones is still in the early stages.
At what age can a child begin to learn from media?
There is no magic age when a child will learn from all media. Children get better at learning from media with age, but they continue learn best from live, face-to-face interactions with adults.
There are many factors that determine what and when children can learn from screen media. Three big factors are the content of the media, the context in which the child is using the media, and the unique qualities of the individual child. Content refers to whether the program is high quality, educational and based on research. The context refers to whether media is being used intentionally or is just on the background of another activity. Children have the most learning opportunities when media is used intentionally. In fact, background media has been shown to disrupt children’s play and reduce conversations between caregivers and children. Context also refers to whether an adult is present to support the child’s learning from the media. Children learn more from screen media when an adult is engaging with them by asking questions and describing what they are watching or doing. Finally, individual child factors include a child’s developing abilities and whether the child’s age is appropriate for the media they are using or viewing. Notably, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages use of any screen media with children under two years of age. They recommend screen media exposure be limited to 1-2 hours per day for child over age two.
On your website you talk about the importance of the child’s first 2,000 days of life. What activities do you recommend?
One theme that keeps coming up in our research is the importance of early experiences for children’s development and learning. Children learn so much during the first five years of life and this learning happens during interactions with other people and with the world. Since these early experiences are so important for building children’s foundational skills, it’s important that children have high quality experiences.
We’ve learned more and more about what makes everyday experiences high quality. The most important ingredients of high-quality interactions are the people themselves. Children learn best from other people. For example, young infants only learn the sounds of language by playing with a live person, but do not learn by watching video or listening to language sounds on a CD. In face-to-face interactions, adults can respond to a child’s needs and interests in the moment. This back-and-forth exchangehelps the infant learns by observing the caregiver’s eye gaze, points, and gestures. This is how a caregiver and an infant build a connection before real conversations begin.
In addition, the language used by caregivers in interactions also helps children learn. Both the number of words that children hear and the type of language are important. Youngest children learn best when they listen to infant-directed speech, or “parentese”. Fathers, siblings, teachers, grandparents and other adults use parentese naturally. It sounds like a sing-song, or exaggerated tone of voice. Babies love to listen to it! Science shows that babies who hear more parentese actually speak more. Caregivers can also build language in other ways. For example, talking a lot, using new and different words, asking questions, and having playful conversations builds children’s language.
For parents who utilized technology with their children at a young age, are their ways to re-strengthen the brain on time lost?
It’s never too late to spend time in face-to-face interactions with your children! Although the first five years of life are a period of rapid brain growth, the brain continues to develop beyond adolescence. It is important to remember that screen media can be an educational tool when the content, context and child are taken into consideration. Parents can help make media use a learning experience by engaging in the media with their child.
You’ve developed learning modules for parents and caregivers. Can you tell me a little about these modules and what we’ll take away from them?
I-LABS is building an online library of resources for early learning professionals, parents, caregivers, policymakers, and interested community members. The online training modules are designed to share the latest science of child development with the broader community. Each module explores a particular topic of science, such as early brain development, children’s imitation, or language acquisition, and nests it within the larger landscape of child development. Modules are designed to be useful for informing systems-level programs and policies, but also for everyday interactions with children.
And that concludes my interview with Dr. Kuhl.
In conclusion, it seems as though a young child watching TV is damaging to their brain in that it is valuable time lost during the brains most critical development period.
Are the findings enough to change your technology patterns with your children? What tips do you have to engage your children in non-technological ways?
Here are a few activities that have helped me keep my kids exposure to TV minimal:
- Letting them help me in the kitchen (stirring, salting, cutting with a butter knife)
- Having them help clean with spray bottles filled with a water/vinegar solution and arming them with a rag to dry things up
- Letting them set the table or sweep up messes I make while cooking (and thanking them!)
- Letting them paint or draw in the same area as me while I cook
- For babies: I moved Annabel’s playmat into the kitchen and often have her playing on it or I wear in a baby-sling her while I cook.
Please share your thoughts and tips!
SIDENOTE: If you do continue to utilize media for children of any age, please check out Magicalis and utilize their application to rate and find the right programs/activities. This app was created to help parents shape their child’s media diet.