The evidence is irrefutable: the best way to help a baby learn to talk or develop any other cognitive skill is through live interaction with a human being. But what is the impact of technology on young children that are exposed to it? Can an app, an avatar or a 3D cartoon recreate or override human nature? If a child spends too much time being cyber-simulated than connecting with the real world, could it impair other important pre-academic skills such as empathy, social abilities and problem solving? What about a child who spends the bulk of their playtime with an interactive app, in which objects explode, appear, reappear, and don’t play by the rules of the physical world? How does looking at a tablet screen impact an infant’s eyesight?
Cyberpsychologist and author Mary Aiken explores these questions in her book The Cyber Effect (Amazon UK, US). The simple answer to them is that we just don’t know. However, Aiken provides incredible insights into what we do know about child development and how technology could affect it. In the absence of any formal regulatory guidance on technology usage, she shares her own.
The psychology of child development
It’s really important to look at your baby’s face. Feeding and nappy-changing alone aren’t enough. A hug and quick kiss aren’t enough. Babies need to be talked to, tickled, massaged, and played with. And it’s a two-way process; a mother and her child need to be paying attention to each other, they need to engage and connect. It’s not just about a baby bonding with you, it’s about you bonding with your baby. There is no study of early child development that does not prove this.
A baby’s attachment style is neurologically coded by their earliest experiences with parents and caregivers. A good attachment style is formed by consistent interactions. In later life, an individual’s attachment style affects everything from their confidence and ability to easily interact with others, form friendships and choose life partners. Babies thrive and develop by experiencing your facial expressions, your calm acceptance of them, your love and attention, even your groggy irritation.
A child’s early years are a crucial time for perceptual development, another product of nature and nurture. During the first two months of life, their eyes focus on edge detection and shapes. At three months, their focus shifts to the features within a shape. We know form brain imaging that there’s a part of the brain in both children and adults that is dedicated to facial recognition. Babies demonstrate an ability to prefer their mother’s face from the earliest hours of life, and by three months old they show a preference for her internal features, particularly her eyes. This means that, as much as adults are hardwired to find babies irresistible to look at – babies are cute and cuddle for evolutionary reasons – a baby will prefer to look at its mother’s face and eyes over other things. This is how development and learning begins.
Play time is also very important. It has been shown repeatedly that children should have at least sixty minutes per day of unstructured play – when children entertain themselves, wither alone or with other children, without adult or technological interference. This is when a child uses imagination and creativity, when he or she practices decision-making and problem solving. Many developmental experts believe that the best toys are the one with the fewest rules. By playing, the toddler has something to learn about the world.
The neurobiology behind this is compelling. When a baby is born, each cell of the brain has around 2,500 synapses – the connections that allow the brain to pass along signals. In the next three years, that number grows to about 15,000 per brain cell, when the brain creates 700 to 1,000 neural connections every second. Synapse formation for key developmental functions such as hearing, language, and cognition peak during this time, making this window in a young child’s life extremely crucial for the development of higher level functions.
What do we know about the the impact of technology on babies & children?
Steve Jobs and Bill Gates strictly limited the time that their young children were allowed to play with devices.
Young children learn less from video than from live interactions, something developmental psychologists call the video deficit effect.
According to pediatric occupational therapist Cris Rowan, as many as one in three children now enter school developmentally delayed, negatively impacting literacy and academic achievement.
In the UK, an escalation of problems associated with pervasive tablet use among preschool-age children has been reported by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, including developmental delays in attention span, fine motor skills and dexterity, speaking and socialisation. Teachers are reporting a growing number of children who are beginning school with an expert ability at swiping a screen but not enough dexterity to pick up and play with building blocks.
Some early-learning experts believe there is a connection between the rise of ADHD and screen use in children. Medical doctor and professor at the University of Washington, Dimitri Christakis, found that the more television a baby or toddler watches, the more likely they are to have attention problems by the time they reach seven years old (the average age ADHD is diagnosed). Another group of researchers found that screen use (of any type) may be connected with a risk of developing attention and learning problems, and negative educational outcomes in the long term. Correlation does not prove causation but ADHD is now the most prevalent psychiatric illness of children in the United States and neuroscience research shows that diagnoses in children has increased just as smartphones, tablets and other digital screens started saturating households.
How can you protect your child from technology?
Don’t use a digital babysitter or, in the future, a robot nanny. Babies and toddlers need a real caregiver and there is no substitute for a real human being.
Because your little baby’s brain is growing quickly and develops through sensory stimulation, consider all the senses – touch, smell, sight, sound. A baby’s early interactions and experiences are encoded in the brain and will have lasting effects.
Wait until your baby is two or three years old before they get screen time. Make a conscious decision about the screen rules for them.
Manage your own technology addiction and your own screen time! When you are checking your smartphone you are not interacting with them.
Don’t be fooled by marketing claims. Science shows that tablet apps may not be as educational as claimed and that screen time can be damaging.
Undertake a cyber-sweep of your babies domain and banish anything with a digital chip or blinking light.
When you play with your baby or toddler, get down on all fours, look into each others eyes and enjoy some unstructured quality time.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like:
My previous post about how your smartphone impacts your brain.
My post about the broader implications of technology on our society: Can technology save the American Dream? Lessons from Janesville