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Ramifications of Early Screen Use - Content, duration, and age of first exposure are critical.

Research regarding screen use in the early years is revealing significant changes to brain and body development, necessitating immediate public health education interventions. Understanding how the brain and body develop in relation to a child’s environment is key in understand the profound causal and associative relationship between screens and child health. This article will profile three critical components to consider when evaluating screen impact including content, duration, and early exposure. Proposed initiatives follow Balanced Technology Management (BTM) frame of reference where parents and teachers strive to manage balance between critical factors for optimal child development and growth, with screen use. BTM interventions will be triaged based on child developmental age, and will focus on 3 target areas: home, schools (including daycares and preschools), and community.

Brain and Body Development

Animals require significantly less time with their parents than humans do, to learn sufficient skills to function independently in the world. It takes humans 18 years to fully prepare a child to achieve adequate physical, social, mental and cognitive skills to attain optimal growth and success. The first two years are critical as brain development is rapid and much of the brain modelling is irreversible. There are two processes that shape and wire the brain: neuronal pruning and proliferation; both essential brain development processes to understand when considering the impact of screen use. Pruning is the cutting and subsequent death of neurons that are not being used; proliferation is the expansion and growth of neurons that are repeatedly fired. Pruning and proliferation occur most rapidly in the early years, and are relative and reactive to stimuli from the surrounding environment.

When a baby is born, all the neuronal tracks are in place. Think of a road map; all the major highways are formed by birth connecting all areas of the brain for diverse and potent growth. To achieve functional efficiency, the brain prunes or cuts away neuronal tracks to areas of the brain that are rarely used, and limits proliferation or growth of synaptic connections to these high use areas. By old age, 2/3 of neurons to areas of low use will be pruned, and areas of high use will receive loads of synaptic proliferation. The environment surrounding the child, directly effects how the brain is wired. If the environment is rich in four critical factors for development including movement, touch, human connection, and nature, neuronal pruning saves tracks to diverse areas of the brain. If the environment contains predominantly screens, which limit engagement to movement, touch, human connection and nature activities, then tracks to low use areas are pruned, including frontal lobe.

Content

Content is key regarding brain pruning and proliferation. Exposure to mindful or educational content maintains and strengthens neuronal tracks to frontal lobe, because you need frontal lobe to understand, interpret, and remember mindful content. Exposure to mindless or entertainment content does not require use of frontal lobes, resulting in pruning, with profound consequences. Mindful content includes any content that results in “active thinking” and constructive learning, which enhances function. Whereas mindless content constitutes “passive entertainment” and destructive learning, which impairs function in daily life. Examples of mindful content include impartial news, nature shows, documentaries, and instructive videos. Examples of mindless content include video games, cartoons, movies, social media (texting/chatting, Facebook), pornography and TV.

Duration

Duration is also key. While everyone needs “down time”, screen usage rates have reached levels which are drastically harming children and adults alike, physically, mentally, cognitively and socially. Since 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics has limited screen usage to nothing for 0-2 years, 1 hour per day for 3-5 years, and 2 hours per day for 6-18 years…yet, children today use 4-5 times that amount with devastating consequences. Developmental delay, mental illness, obesity/diabetes, sleep deprivation, and learning disabilities have reached epidemic status. Our children have never been sicker indicating the ways in which we are raising and educating children with technology are no longer sustainable.

Early Use

Early usage of screens is incredibly damaging to both body and brain development due to the pruning and proliferation process of the developing brain is so rapid, and hence the destruction more permanent. Between age 0-2 years, the brain triples in size and by age 12, half of the brain is ‘hard wired’, and by age 20 years, pruning/proliferation is complete. Device restrictions are critical for this young and vulnerable population. Not only should parents be concerned regarding frontal lobe pruning, but also should be aware of the harmful effects of radiation on young children. Infants, toddlers and young children have higher cell turnover, thinner skulls, and more aqueous bodies, and consequently are more seriously and permanently harmed from wireless radiation. Prevention and intervention initiatives to protect young children are crucial and required immediately if we are to create sustainable futures.

Balanced Technology Management Interventions

Every child has the right to a childhood free of harm and full of playful and fun experiences. Every child has the right to be loved, respected, and attended to by warm and attentive parents and teachers, free from distracting devices. Every child has a right to a future where developmental milestones are met and literacy is ensured. Achieving sustainable futures for all children include the following interventions:

  • Go wired; cable all wireless devices.
  • Ban use of handheld devices for all pregnant mothers and children ages 0-12 years.
  • Ensure literacy prior to use of device.
  • Use low levels of entertainment and high levels of educational content.
  • Keep screen durations within pediatric expert guidelines.
  • Ensure adequate outside, rough and tumble play to meet developmental milestones.

This article was written by Cris Rowan, pediatric occupational therapists, biologist, author and international speaker on the impact of technology on children. Cris’s website is www.zonein.ca, blog is www.movingtolearn.ca, and book is www.virtualchild.ca. Cris can be reached at info@zonein.ca.