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  • Dr. Rebecca A. Thomas

Neurobiology and Technology Ages 2 to 5

Last week we focused how the brain develops by way of human interaction from pre-birth through infancy. This discussion was prompted due to concerns about the impact of the overuse of 'screens' on the developing brains fo our children. And guess what appeared in my mailbox only a couple of days after that article was published in the paper? My 'Monitor on Psychology' magazine, a publication of the American Psychological Association that keeps me up to date on important areas of research.


Right on the cover: "Kids, Teens & Screens: Psychologists' research offers new insight on the risks and potential benefits of digital devices." How fortuitous is that? They must know that we've been talking. Let's break this information down into smaller sections, starting with kids up to age 5 or so this week.


The American Academy of Pediatrics and the WHO (World Health Organization, not the band) both call for no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months of age, except for video chatting. And kids ages 2-5 watch no more than an hour of screen time per day. However, it is clear that parents often don't enforce these screen time limits for various reasons. Some parents feel they can't afford alternative entertainment for their kids, some parents feel exhausted, some report they need to get things done around the house, and then of course there are those Iowa long cold winters...


What was not mentioned in the article, however, is the fact that many parents may not be aware that they may be actually doing harm by just trying to entertain their kids. How many of us have bought educational media like Baby Einstein for our kids and grandkids to give these kids an educational edge? Well, evidence is strong now to suggest that screens aren't an effective teaching tool for babies and toddlers at all. Further, the use of these tools can displace the kinds of face-to face interactions that actually help young kids learn (remember last week's article?) Kids under 3 are unable to generalize the information on the video to real life. For example, if the child watches a video of someone hiding a toy in a room and it's a video of the very room that they are currently in, the child will likely be unable to mimic the person on screen and find the toy that was hidden in the room.


My point here isn't to make parents feel bad: in truth we are really just recently doing the research that will help us make better and more informed decisions for our kids. But there is bad news. Studies suggest that more screen time per week in young children (36 months) was linked with poorer performance on evaluations for behavioral, cognitive and social development--all three domains. And further investigation into the matter suggested that the excessive screen time seemed to precede the developmental difficulties, not that the excessive screen time was used due to the child having difficulties. Therefore there is a strong correlation that may prove to be casual.


In a study where new words were introduced on the screen by an actor, only when a parent watched with their 2 year olds and mimicked the screen activity did the child actually learn the new words. And for 3-5 year olds, study done on "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" showed that kids who watched this program showed greater emotional recognition, empathy and self-efficacy IF those children also came from homes where parents consistently talked to their children about their TV viewing. However, what they are now calling 'co-viewing' with parents is still the most effective way for them to learn.


The bottom line? It's back to the human connection and face-to-face interaction. Parents, there is no substitute for you and your relationship with your child. You are your child's primary teacher and you can set the stage for your child's entry into school that will virtually ensure their success. You prepare them by teaching them how to care for others and for themselves; how to be in a healthy, loving relationship. This produces empathy and self-regulation; the ability to care for oneself and for others. Your child is prepared to behave, attend, and learn. Please use the guidelines for media use to help you be more effective in your job. As a community, we can support you, we can assist you, we can care about you and your child and provide opportunities for you--but there is no one who can replace what only you can do.


Next up: The over 5 crowd.

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