Researchers' Zone:

Those first few years of life are a critical period for brain development. Is it ok for toddlers to watch some kids shows on an iPad or could it be harmful?

Safeguarding toddler development: A closer look at screentime

Screen time affects young children's brain development. But is it harmful? And what can parents do?

There have been a lot of conversations about children and teenagers and their screen time. It focuses mainly on how smartphones and social media can impact brain development.

As a neuroscientsist and recently, a new mum, I was curious as to how I should handle the issue of screentime with my own child. Is it ok for her to watch some kids shows on an iPad or could it be harmful?

And although screentime is not recommended for children under the age of two, we know children this young are being exposed to it.

In a study that analysed YouTube videos of children using an iPad, most children aged 12-17 months had already developed a moderate ability to use a tablet. And by the time they are over two years old, more than 90 percent can use a tablet.

It can be quite common to see young children just 1 year old using a tablet and there are a lot of apps and shows targeted for toddlers.

That's why I've delved into the existing research on how screen time affects brain development in young children.

The first years are a critical period for brain development

Those first few years of life are a critical period for brain development. When children are born, their brain is at about 25 percent of their adult brain weight and by the end of the first year it will be 70 percent of the brain weight.

They gain that last 30 percent over the next few years. This means, that in those early years, the brain is growing at a rapid rate, taking in all those new experiences, making new connections in the brain.

But it also means the brain is susceptible to negative interactions.

Do screens have a place at this early age? What do children, who can’t even talk yet, get out of these interactions with screens?

Attention is held better with in person interactions

A study from Canadian researchers in 2023 looked at babies 6-14 months old and how they paid attention to a live concert versus a recording of a concert.

When compared to the babies watching the concert live, the babies at home were more easily distracted and had shorter bursts of attention.

Even though the babies at the concert are just sitting there, not being interacted with, there was still something about seeing it live that made a difference.

The infants seeing the concert live had more sustained attention and more attention overall.

Seeing the people playing instruments, having this interaction and the social context was much more captivating than sitting at home watching a screen.

Human interaction gives more synchronized brain activity

So it seems not everything can be fully conveyed online, as the concert study indicates.

This has also been shown in a study from 2022 employing brain scanning techniques. Children 10-14 years of age were either talking to their mother in person, or on a video chat.

During this call, the researchers used EEG to measure the brain activity of both the mother and the child, looking for synchronization between their signals, this is called brain-to-brain synchrony.

They found that for the live interaction elicited nine cross brain links, whereas the video chat, only one.

Activating connections in the brain is important for development

You may be wondering why you should care about brains being synchronized when having a conversation.

It’s important as it has to do with social development, that synchronization is a sign of engagement, of reading the others body language, reading facial cues and matching them.

Of course, video chatting to keep in touch helps but I think anyone you ask will tell you that ‘it’s just not the same’.

This kind of brain synchronization is also important for toddlers as they learn to engage socially and interact with others.

White matter in the brain is related to social development

When the brain is stimulated and many different brain areas have to be activated for an activity, for example by social interactions where you are reading body language, listening to new information, thinking about what to say, this impact the brains white matter.

Your brain can roughly be divided into the grey matter and white matter. The grey matter is the outer part of the brain, where the brain cells are.

The white matter is the inner part of the brain where all the connections from different parts of the brain run, it’s a super highway for brain signaling.

And it is white in colour because of something called myelin, which is wrapped around the connections and helps insulate them, like the shielding around an electrical cord.

It helps the brain signals move faster and over further distances.

Myelin develops over time as connections between areas are strengthened due to these connections being repeatedly activated.

Thus we see a large increase in the amount and density of white matter in the brain in the first few years of life.

Brain scans of children under three years old, have found a correlation between the development of white matter in the brain and the development of social-emotional skills.

Screen time could impact white matter

It's in these early years, between 1 and 3 years, that children really start interacting with others and trying to understand their intentions and emotions.

It’s a critical period for social development and having proper in person interactions to stimulate connection in the brain is crucial for development.

In fact, in slightly older children aged three to five, screen time has been negatively associated with white matter structural integrity. That is more screen time was associated with less stable white matter.

These are only associations and do not prove a definite cause and effect.

But it does underline the need for further research into the impacts of screen time, in particular in younger children and the need for parents to be aware from the first few years about how screen time is being incorporated into their children’s lives.

What parents can do at home

For parents thinking about introducing screen time to their toddlers, here are three good tips:

1. Be conscious of your choices.

Think about why you want to introduce technology. What benefit does it provide. Perhaps it’s that the kids are distracted and you get a break. Every parent wants that. But really consider if you can use something else and also think about the quality of the apps you are downloading for your children.

2. Be with them.

Social interaction is important. Not only is it important that children get a variety of social interaction, but it is also important that you keep the social element when your children, especially toddlers, are using technology. Research has shown that even at 15 months old, children are better able to take what they have learned on a screen and use it in real life when a parent or caregiver is there to interact and guide them.

3. Be a role model.

Children are little mimics. If they see you on your phone all the time, they will also want to know what is so interesting. Therefore, good habits with screen time start with you.

Of course, you have to find the best way this works for your family. It’s not easy to just ban screens, when their siblings have a phone or their friends are playing games on tablets.

But we can be mindful of how and how much we use screens in our everyday and consider holding off on introducing screen time until a later age.


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