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Brain Drain - How technology disrupts early brain development

A common belief by today’s parents is that early use of technology by young children is harmless, and might even prove beneficial to their developing brains. Promises of improved cognition, eye/hand coordination, visual motor control, reaction time, and even foundation skills for future surgeon occupations are touted by digital media designers. Parents repeatedly report that if they don’t engage their child with early use of technology, the child will be missing out, be behind their peers, and may never catch up their lost ‘techno skill set’ to be able to compete for eventual jobs when they grow up. These beliefs that technology is indeed good for young children, are daily reinforced by the parent’s own technology use patterns, as parents who are high users of technology raise children who are much the same. This article is intended to detail aspects of early brain development that are particularly vulnerable to technology (TV, violent video games, fast paced cartoons), and proposes parents adopt Steve Jobs tech rules for his own family – no handheld devices for children under 12 years of age.

In order to understand the impact of technology on the developing brain, it’s imperative to review what we already know about normal brain development. This essential knowledge about the developing nervous system, will prepare parents and teachers to be able to more clearly define and understand how early exposure to technology can disrupt the development of their child’s brain.

There are two primary processes that define early human brain development – pruning and proliferation. When an infant is born, they have their full complement of neurons, tracks that connect all parts of the brain. These neuronal tracks can be envisioned like a map of interconnecting roads that traverse a province or state, often comprising multiple or redundant routes to get from city to city. By the time this infant reaches old age, the brain in order to attain efficiency, will prune 2/3 of these neurons. This pruning process is relevant to the environment which surrounds the child. Where enriched environments will result in diverse and diffuse neuronal pruning, saving those neurons needed to master a significant variety of life tasks, exposure to deprived or technology heavy environments, will result in neuronal pruning to the frontal lobes, an area of the brain known for executive functions such as attention, memory, impulse control, and learning. What few parents understand is that children largely engage in entertainment based technologies, which are fast paced, often violent, and which require little use of the frontal lobes. When it comes to brain development, just like body development, ‘use it or loose it’ aptly applies.

Proliferation of synaptic connections between these neuronal tracks, is the second brain development process which is greatly impacted by surrounding environments. The rate of pruning and proliferation of neurons and synapses is very rapid when the child is young, with the brain tripling in size the first two years of life, and continuing its trajectory of fast development until the early 20’s. The environments and stimuli which young children are exposed to, are subsequently immensely important in the wiring and shaping of the brain, and the ways in which the brain develops, are a salient component of a child’s behavior and ability to learn.

In workshops, I frequently tell parents that growing a child is like building a house…it’s all about the foundation. There are four critical foundational factors needed to optimize both brain and body development in children – movement, touch, human connection and nature. Children who are exposed to these enriched environmental stimuli from a very young age, grow up to develop not only healthy bodies, but also diffuse and diverse neuronal and synaptic networks. Immersion in this enriched environment, results in a highly evolved brain, a brain able to self-regulate, adapt, pay attention and learn (see Building Foundation graphic). Creativity and imagination mark these children who have developed whole and complete brains, ultimately resulting in highly successful children in school and adults in work professions. Children who grow up in deprived or neglected environments, and/or are excessively exposed to technology, have an accompanying deficit of movement, touch, human connection and nature. The result of chronic technology overuse is isolation, overstimulation, sedentary lifestyle, and parental neglect (see Virtual Futures graphic). Problematic behavior, developmental delay, learning disability and mental health issues mark these children who have developed only small, discrete parts of their brains, who lack in frontal lobe development and neuronal connections.

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Things parents can do to ensure optimal brain and body development are to increase access to the four critical factors for child development, while also restricting access to technology. Termed Balanced Technology Management, this approach will create happy, well adjusted, successful and ultimately sustainable children. The following are suggestions families may want to implement to build heathy foundations and futures.

  1. No handheld technology until 12 years of age e.g. cell phones, tablets, gaming devices.

Due to rapid brain development between 0 and 12 years of age, children should follow expert guidelines for technology use, and only use desktop computers or stationary TV’s. Steve Jobs family followed this rule to ensure his children achieved optimal physical, mental, social, and cognitive skills prior to use of handheld devices. While desktop computers and TV’s were allowed, much harder to manage transportable technologies were prohibited in the Jobs household until 12 years of age.

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  1. Cook, eat, and clean up dinner every night as a family, at a dining room table, technology free.

Socializing at the dinner table is a time where children can feel free to try out a variety of behaviours and explore and establish their own personal identities. Playing a round table question of telling one good and one bad thing that happened during the day, goes a long way toward feelings of security and belonging.

  1. Spend one night per week doing a family activity, technology free.

Dust off those board games, keep a deck of cards on the coffee table, make Monday’s Cookie Night, Twister, hide and seek, tag, toss a football, put up a basketball hoop, play Frisbee, take the dog for a walk, go for a bike ride!

  1. Spend half day per week doing a family outing, technology free.

Go swimming, to a park, beach or forest, invite other families over for a picnic outing or potluck dinner, sign kids up for organized sports, go grocery shopping together, clean house together, just go for a random, long, drive or bus ride.

  1. Assign each child a daily and weekend chore.

Children love to help out, but the task bar must be just right e.g. not too hard, not too easy. Every child should have one thing they do every day that makes them feel part of a family team. Get kids to do their own laundry, help out with dinner and dishes, and clean their own room.

Above noted healthy activities suggestions comprise requirements for foundational four critical factors of movement, touch, human connection and nature. When child spend more time engaged in healthy activity, they will be automatically using less technology. Win win.


Cris Rowan, BScOT, BScBi, SIPT, AOTA Approved Provider
Pediatric occupational therapist, CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc., and author of “Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children”