The Effects of Digital Media Use on Early Childhood Brain Development and Self-Regulation

~ Dr. Holly WhiteKnight, ND

Media use by children and adolescents has reached an unprecedented level, and is ubiquitous. A recent study reported that Canadian children spend 8.5 hours per day engaged in sedentary media activities. Those under the age of two are spending 2.5 hours a day in front of a television. Youth also report using more than one device at a time. Both quantity and quality of media consumption have effects on brain development and the behavior of youth.

A developing brain is a sensitive organ that slowly builds from the bottom up. Development begins with the brainstem in younger years to the midbrain and limbic system, ending with the cortex which continues to be fine-tuned well into adulthood. During the first five years, the most essential and voluminous neuronal connections are activated to create a strong foundation for future learning, and behaviour, which can greatly impact one’s health. The young child’s voracious appetite for knowledge can easily be thwarted with excessive screen time, which,
according to the research, is becoming more common.

Age Specific Concerns

Media Exposure in Ages 0-3

In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics began to discourage parents from allowing children under the age of two to view television entirely. Since then, the Academy has supported their recommendations with studies that have demonstrated adverse health and developmental effects of media for children under the age of two. Despite these overt recommendations, 90% of parents report that their children under the age of two have viewed some sort of electronic media.

The “serve and return” relationship between infants and toddlers and their caregivers help develop the brain’s architecture. In the absence of typical parent-child interactions like babbling, voice and facial mirroring, simultaneously with parental viewing of media or frequent background television (even if only audible), the infant’s limbic system becomes underdeveloped. This leads to poor attachment and subsequent learning and behaviour disparities.

The link between media exposure and poor language development in toddlers has been well researched. Some of the documented explanations for the delay in speech are due to a lack of audible adult speech and vocabulary interaction. Since approximately 30% of American homes have the television on at all times when they are home, there are fewer opportunities for parents to give their undivided attention to children and provide sufficient audible interactions. It has been found that for every hour that a television was on, 500-1000 fewer adult words were spoken in the household. It has been shown that infants learn language better from a native speaker in their household such as a parent or caregiver than from a screen, even if the media usage is in the child’s native language.

Although screen time guidelines incrementally increase after the age of two (zero screen time recommended for children under the age of two to one hour by the age of three and two hours by the age of five) studies demonstrate that under the age of five, media time cuts into creative and imaginative play as well as positive interaction with parents, caregivers or siblings. It is critical to encourage unstructured playtime in young children to help learn problem-solving skills and
foster creativity.

Research has also demonstrated that there are negative long-term effects on a child’s attention span when using screen time between the ages of one and three years old. Children who watch little television and regularly engage in active play have fewer problems with attention and focus than those who indulge heavily in digital media and computer time. It has also been hypothesized that rapid computer or television screen changes observed by can have adverse effects on the developing brain of young children.

Media Exposure in Preschoolers

Preschoolers are also advised to consume media in moderation. The health and cognitive development these of preschoolers is enhanced when they engage in free play and physical activity. According to current research, the collection of prefrontal skills in the brain, known as the executive function, can be negatively affected when young children are exposed to early screen viewing. The executive function includes goal-directed behaviour (including attention, working memory, inhibitory control, problem solving, self-regulation and delay of gratification) and is central to positive social interactions and cognitive functioning, all critical for success in school.
These consequences are thought to be a result of dopamine release within the striatum of the brain, which has been studied in young adults when playing video games. With dopamine being a key component in the reward system, it is worrisome that screens have the potential to re-arrange the circuitry of the brain’s neurons and therefore encourage poor decision-making and risky behaviour.

Benefits of Media

The preponderance of media in our society is unavoidable and not exclusively negative. The impact of television watching on learning by young children is directly dependent upon the quality of the program. Vocabulary rates can grow the most if watching interactive programs where the characters talk directly to the child viewer to actively elicit their participation. Researchers attribute this to expressive language encouragement. Programs with strong storybook-like structures with continuous narratives also are beneficial for language development in preschoolers. Repetition and high song volume also can help with language development in toddlers.

Recommendations

Parents appear to be the greatest mediator of both the time spent engaging with screen-based activities in children, as well as its impact on development. Both parental modeling (i.e. time spent by a parent in front of a screen) and parental regulation of quantity and location of “screen time” seem to influence time spent by youth. Awareness by parents of the content of the media consumed may also have a favourable impact on the effects on their child. Actively co-viewing media with a young child is recommended, followed by a discussion of what was watched to help integrate the learning is ideal, rather than using the media passively as a babysitter.

Simple strategies may effectively reduce the amount of time youth spend engaged with electronic media, such as eating meals as a family, encouraging physical activity (also impacted by parental modeling), reducing the number of televisions in the home and completely removing devices from children’s rooms. With appropriate modeling and firm daily rhythms, children can learn to appreciate the importance of real interactions and relationships while being “unplugged” from media, while benefitting from opportunities that they offer.