When ordinary cell phones turned into computers (smartphones), life as we knew it changed forever. Now, with most electronic devices being mobile, communication and entertainment are available to us 24/7 wherever we go in our wireless world. Computers are now seamlessly woven into our daily lives. As a result of this effortless integration, we don’t notice when our use patterns become a problem. More importantly, we don’t realize we’re introducing our children to this technology at increasingly younger ages where research shows it has an impact on physical and brain development.
Toddlers & Texts
As educational and entertainment apps continue to increase, it seems more children are tapping on touch screens at younger ages. Smartphones, notebooks and touch screen integration into toys is quickly replacing the appeal of storybooks, playgrounds, baby dolls and board games for children at such a pace that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stated it’s concerned that the trend is changing the nature of childhood.
Research shows that 60% of parents with children under 12 reported that their child plays on a portable screen often, while 38% play very often. Incredibly, 36% of children under 12 had their own device. A study by the research consortium, Common Sense Media, found that the use of gadgets like smartphones and tablets by children younger than eight jumped from 38% in 2011 to 72% today, and that use by toddlers rose from 10% to 38%. According to the AAP’s own research, even by one year of age, one in seven toddlers is using a touch screen device for at least one hour per day. By age 2, most children were using touch screen devices for at least an hour per day, and usage increased with age. With regard to parents, 73% let children play with mobile devices while they did household chores, and 60% did so while running errands. Nearly 65% used touch screen devices to calm a child and 29% to put a child to sleep.
With such early introduction to mobile devices, children are thoroughly familiar with the technology by age seven, after which time usage begins to increase rapidly. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children between 8 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours per day or 53 hours per week staring at the screen of a mobile device. Contrast that with a report from the Nature Conservancy that shows preschoolers spend about 1.5 hours per day or 12 hours per week on a playground or outdoors and one thing becomes clear; from about age 8, traditional play begins to disappear rather quickly.
Many parents rush to put mobile devices in front of their children at younger ages because they believe the content or app they’re using is educational. Schools have spent millions of dollars to put mobile devices into the hands of their students because they believed it would improve achievement. After years of doing so, however, the AAP states there is no evidence that shows technology either improves achievement or helps students learn better.
Parents are often fooled into buying devices or using on-screen programs for children ages 2 and younger because they’re told the content is educational and will give their child a head start in learning.
The AAP has gone on record several times stating that there is no evidence to support such claims, particularly because children younger than 2 cannot understand the content being presented to them. What’s far more important for children 2 and younger is unstructured playtime to develop creativity, problem-solving and reasoning skills, not to mention motor skills. Because of this, unstructured playtime is far more important and essential to brain development than media exposure.
Early Age Overexposure
Media usage and its effect on the brain is an issue for all children, because the brain continues to develop and grow until about age 21. Young children, especially those age 2 and under, face a particular risk from media exposure because of the rapid neurological development happening during this time that causes the brain to triple in size. Throughout this crucial phase, brain development is determined by environmental stimuli or the lack of it. Overstimulation from technology (TV, cell phones, iPads, internet) has consistently shown to be associated with impaired learning, executive function and attention deficit, increased impulsivity, and cognitive delays. It’s also known that watching videos doesn’t really help young children learn to talk and may in fact delay speech development because our brains are wired to learn from speech that’s spoken directly to us by parents and other people in our environment.
In 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified cell phones and other wireless devices as Category 2B risks due to radiation emission, saying they were “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” What makes this a bigger danger for children is that their brains and immune systems are still developing while they’re using wireless devices, and their craniums are thinner, which makes them more susceptible to the same level of EMF radiation than adults.
As children get older and obtain their own mobile devices, usage skyrockets and so do the problems. Long periods of use deprive a child’s brain of the crucial downtime needed for information processing and learning. Research from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has shown that it’s only when the brain gets a break or sufficient downtime after having a new experience or exploring unfamiliar territory, that it can process that information in a way that creates a persistent memory of the experience. This process is essential to how we learn. Loren Frank, a UCSF scientist specializing in learning and memory said, “Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” and that when the brain is constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.” In a similar way, a study from the University of Michigan showed that people learned significantly better after taking a walk in nature versus down a busy urban street with lots of traffic, construction, and over stimulation.
In 2014, Psychology Today compiled no less than 16 international studies reviewing brain scans of internet and game-addicted teenagers that showed too much screen time leads to gray matter atrophy in areas involved with planning, prioritization, organization, impulse control, cognitive control and emotional processing. There was also demonstrated loss of integrity in the brain’s white matter with diminished connections between hemispheres and reduced cortical thickness of the frontal lobe with cognitive impairment.
Even teenage drivers dependent on GPS devices who’ve never read a physical map risk loss of their cognitive spatial relation capabilities. Every year it seems that helicopter rescue crews are plucking more lost hikers out of the wilderness because their GPS device failed and they couldn’t find their way back using geographical and directional cues. Taxi drivers using GPS are experiencing the same kind of loss of ability.
Sleep & Sight
The hyper excitement created in the brain from staring into a backlit screen for many hours a day is now preventing children from falling asleep or sleeping well.
Keeping neurons over-activated even an hour before bedtime by playing video games or answering email triggers the fight-or-flight response to some degree and generates the stress hormone, cortisol, which is hardly conducive to sleep. At the same time, the blue ray of the light spectrum emitted from the screens of media devices interacts with the hypothalamus by tricking it into thinking it’s daylight, thus delaying the release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.
Excessive “close work” from activities such as reading and sewing has long been suspected as a major contributor to nearsightedness or myopia, the inability to bring distant objects into focus. As more children continue to stare at a screen only inches from their face for hours on end, some are suspecting computers and mobile devices as a significant cause in the dramatic increase of forced nearsightedness in the population. According to the Archives of Ophthalmology, about 25% of people in the U.S. age 12-54 were nearsighted in the 1970’s. By 2004, it was 42%, an increase of 66% in barely 30 years. It’s probably not a coincidence that personal computers and later, mobile devices were introduced into society during this time frame. Because that study is already 16 years old, it’s highly likely that the national nearsightedness rate is closer to 55% now, easily surpassing farsightedness as the most common visual problem.
In response to the overwhelming evidence that excessive technology usage negatively affects childhood brain development and function, sleep, and eyesight, the AAP, an organization of more than 60,000 primary care pediatricians, updated its official recommendations for media use by children in 2018. Among these guidelines are avoiding digital media for children under age 2 with the exception of video chatting with relatives who live far away. Children ages 2 to 5 should be limited to one hour of screen time per day. Unfortunately, no limits are suggested for children ages 6 to 18. My personal recommendations would include:
- Keep TV and all internet-connected devices out of your child’s bedroom. Following just this recommendation can eliminate most of the screen related problems with children, not to mention improving sleep quality.
- Limit entertainment screen time for children under 18 to no more than two hours per day. If your child is already displaying attention, learning or behavioral issues, consider even less.
- Eliminate all media exposure to children age 2 and younger.
- Monitor what social media your children are using and the websites they visit. Be sure you have access to your children’s accounts. Remember that the more devices they have, the harder it is to keep tabs on what they’re doing online and for how long.
- View TV, movies and videos with your children to assess the quality of content. It’s not a bad idea to play each new video game with your child or at least supervise the first round of gameplay, as even games for young children can be deceptively violent or inappropriate in many ways.
- Enforce a mealtime and bedtime curfew for all media devices, including cell phones. Make a rule that children must hand in their cell phones 2-3 hours before bedtime to help their brains and bodies prepare for sleep. This also ensures children won’t be texting or surfing the internet into the wee hours.
- Establish a family media plan and be a good role model for your children. Don’t expect your children to go along with these recommendations willingly if you’re answering emails from the dinner table. It will be easier and more encouraging if the whole family participates in the plan.
Opinions & Options
Limiting technology use by children, even for health reasons, has come under fire by technology corporations and toy manufacturers for obvious reasons. Naturally, this puts pressure on advocacy organizations like AAP that has changed its media use recommendations for children at least twice in the recent past. That’s why parents can get confused when just a few years ago magazines like Fast Co. Design were reporting: “The American Academy of Pediatrics Says iPads Okay for Infants”.
In the end, everyone must make their own choices with regard to how much influence they want wireless technology to hold in their lives and the lives of their children. As you make those decisions, there’s no need to be a technophobe about technology and your children. However, considering the science surrounding the issue, perhaps it’s best to err on the side of being a little old fashioned and sending your child out to play in the real world more often instead of the virtual one.
For more health insights from Dr. Sadeghi, please visit Behiveofhealing.com to sign up for the monthly newsletter or check out his annual health and well-being journal, MegaZEN here. For daily messages of encouragement and humor, follow him on Twitter at Behiveofhealing.