Mark N. Skelton, MA, EMDR
Basic Trained EMDR Clinician | Cognitive Skills Trainer
Doctoral Student, Clinical Psychology (KCU)
Are you the parent of an infant, toddler or preschooler? If not, maybe you have nieces and nephews or children you work closely with through educational efforts, extracurricular activities or your local church community. The reason for this question is to raise awareness of the fact that many adults, unwittingly, are allowing children to binge on screen time without realizing the negative consequences on their developing brain. Frankly speaking, shoving a portable device in young children’s faces “to keep them busy” maybe doing more harm than good. This topic is of utmost importance because building healthy brains in early years creates a sound foundation for neurodevelopment throughout the lifespan (Davies & Troy, 2020). For this article, I wanted to take a brief look at how brain science informs our knowledge of child development and how this is impacted by high levels of screen time.
Childhood is a time of significant growth and major changes in one’s biological and psychological configuration. During this time, infants, toddlers and preschoolers are extremely impressionable and undergo defining moments that are foundational to their social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual development. Literature within professional psychology demonstrate that the context of experiences and caretaking relationships have some of the most significant influences on these developmental processes (Davies & Troy, 2020). Davies & Troy (2020) highlights how healthy environmental factors are most significant during the first year of life, the period of most rapid brain growth. For example, a study followed adopted children, from Romanian orphanages, who spent early months and years with minimal stimulations, interaction and opportunity for attachment (Davies & Troy, 2020). Post-adoption assessments revealed that severe problems of inattention and hyperactivity seemed to be common at ages 6 and 11 years old in these same children (Stevens et al., 2007). Furthermore, self-regulation difficulties and attachment disturbances were higher in children that did not have healthy environments and supporting adoptive parents. Consequently, psychological models, such as Attachment Theory, shed light on the notion that later experiences can alter one’s developmental trajectory in either a negative or positive fashion regardless of the attachment behavior displayed in the first years of life (Allen, 2016).
Neuroscience & Screen Time
Neurodevelopmental research demonstrates that early brain growth is a marvelous process filled with wonders and operations that are far more complex and sophisticated than this paper allows space for in detailing. However, it is essential to note that the brain nearly triples in size from birth to age 2 and blossoms a whole range of human functioning, including motor abilities, sensory capacities, emotional response and cognitive skills (Davies & Troy, 2020). These functions are made possible by the process of myelination and rapid synaptogenesis. Keep in mind that during the early part of brain development, up to ages 3-4, the brain is more reactive to environmental influences than in later development (Davies & Troy, 2020). Davies & Troy (2020) also explain that there are risk and protective processes that influence brain organization, and ultimately, the overall development of children. Put another way, “what experience offers, the brain takes” (p. 42). This dynamic of a child’s interaction with their environment leads us into examining the relationship between screen time and brain development. Steven Reinberg, a HealthDay Reporter, reports that toddlers who spend loads of time looking at tablets, smartphones or TV’s may be changing their brains, and not for the better (2019). In the same article Dr. Reshma Naidoo, Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, said that watching screens is a passive and two-dimensional process which is not good for brain development. Let’s take a look at what the research and studies are finding.
Impact on Brain Development
According to Dr. Michael Rich, Pediatrician and Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, growing brains are constantly building brain cell connections while pruning away less used ones and digital media screens provide “impoverished” stimulation of the developing brain to reality (Ruder, 2019). In particular, Dr. Rich highlights that screen time can interfere with creativity and sleep. Interestingly enough, there is a growing body of research studying the importance of sleep for brain development in young children. Apparently, good sleep within this age group benefits learning, memory, emotional regulation and cognitive development (Jiang, 2020). A systematic review examined the association between screen times and sleep outcomes in infants, toddlers and preschoolers and indicated that screen time is associated with poorer sleep outcomes in this same population. This was evidenced by longer sleep onset, shorter sleep duration and more night awakenings (Janssen, 2019). Studies have shown that short wavelength (blue/green) light that emits from screens suppress secretion of melatonin, the “sleep hormone” (Janssen, 2019; Ruder, 2019). So, if parents are having trouble with their kiddos and bedtime, they may want to re-evaluate how much screen time their children are getting during the day and especially in the evening. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2020) recommends families to; avoid digital media use (except video-chatting) in children younger than 18 to 24 months, limit screen use to 1 hour per day for children 2 to 5 years of age, and avoid using media as the only way to calm your child. Please be sure to visit the AAP website for the full and more in depth list of recommendation.
In conclusion, this article is an effort to help raise public awareness about the potential consequences that exposures to high screen time can have on developing brains. It is important to remember that children are experiencing rapid development during the early years of the life span. Because of this biological design, children are a lot more impressionable and susceptible to the influences of the environment during this period. For this reason, parents and guardians should take extra precaution to infant, toddler and preschooler media usages since it is associated with having a negative impact on brain health.
Allen, B. (2016). A radical idea: A call to eliminate “attachment disorder” and “attachment therapy” from
the clinical lexicon. Evidence-Based Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 1(1), 60-71.
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020). Media and young minds.
Davies, D. & Troy, M. (2020). Chlild development: A practitioner’s guide (4th ed.).The Guildford Press.
Janssen, X., Martin, A., Hughes, A.R., Hill, C.M., Kotronoulas, G., & Hesketh, K.R. (2019). Associations of
screen time, sedentary time and physical activity with sleep in under 5s: A systematic review
and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine Review, 49 (2020), 1-18.
Jiang, F. (2019). Sleep and early brain development. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 75(1), 44-53.
Ruder, B.R. (2020, June 19). Screen time and the brain: Digital devices can interfere with everything from
sleep to creativity. https://hms.harvard.edu/news/screen-time-brain
Reinberg, S. (2019, November 5). Too much screen time may stunt toddler’s brains.
Stevens, S.E., Sonuga-Barke, E.J.S., Kreppner, J.M., Beckett, C., Castle, J., Colvert, E., et al. (2007).
Inattention/overactivity following early severe institutional deprivation: Presentation and
association in early adolescence. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 385 -398.
The views and opinions expressed by Skelton Neurocounseling, L.L.C. are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of any educational institution or organizational affiliation. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.