Contemporary Child Development: The Impact of Excessive Tech Time on Cognition and Communication

Today, we see a range of factors influence childhood in ways that affect a child’s ability to behave in a socially acceptable manner, learn, communicate effectively and regulate their emotions (The Children’s Trust, 2016; Gerhardt, 2015; Lighting Up Young Brains, 2015). Perhaps most pervasive of all, recent technological advances (Kabali et al, 2015; Swing et al, 2010; Kumari et al, 2010; Dworak et al, 2007) alongside earlier testing of children, a sharp decline in outdoor play, and the hyper-commercialisation of childhood are resulting in an unprecedented, rapid change in the lifestyle of children and their families (Meadows, 2016; Palmer, 2010, 2007; Desforges and Abouchaar, 2003). These issues are further exacerbated by increasingly busy family schedules in which children are packed off to various after-school activities and weekend classes, leaving minimal time to just ‘be’.

Year on year, we are seeing a higher number of children entering school with language delay and communication difficulties, alongside problems in engaging in the learning process. This article explores some of those factors which are considered most pervasive and challenging to teachers. Arguably perhaps two of the most problematic (and inextricably linked) factors are the digital age and the home learning environment (HLE). It is these two factors which are explored in this post.

Developing language in a digital age

It is a familiar scene: a family sits around the dinner table, each in deep concentration, attentively watching and listening to the voices in front of them. This all seems perfectly fine and beneficial for the young children who are also deeply engrossed in the exchange. The only issue is that they are not communicating with one another but are on their individual electronic devices. It has become all too common for some families to spend time together without communicating with each other. Young children play hand-held computer games and visit social media websites on their tablets, while primary carers spend time online or talking on their mobile phones.

‘Nothing wrong with that’ you may say, but I disagree. Based on countless conversations with students, colleagues, teachers and parents, it seems that many of us are now exasperated by the almost incessant intrusion of the online world. The main reason for this seems to be the impact it exerts on a child’s desire and ability to communicate with those around them. The problem is often compounded by parents who also find themselves too busy or more absorbed in the online world rather than engaging with their child (YouGov, 2016; Radesky et al, 2014; Jiang et al, 2012). Given that millions of people depend on the online world to fulfil various aspects of their lives, the plethora of tech devices invade almost every aspect of our real world. At home, some of us literally find it difficult to ‘switch off’, constantly answering/writing emails, working or checking in with Facebook. Out and about, we observe parents/caregivers immersed in their mobile phones, chastising their young child’s cries and bids for attention and interaction. Yet they do not realise their addictive behaviour implicitly endorses such behaviour. It comes as little surprise that excessive internet use, in its many different guises, can cause long-term stress within families (Livingstone et al, 2011; Young 1998).

Neuroscience shows that the brain is at its most malleable from birth to three years, with synaptic activity being at its most prolific during this time. At birth, typically, a baby’s brain contains roughly 86 billion neurons and each of these neurons can make up to 10 thousand connections with neighbouring neurons (Azevedo, 2009). This however is not a ‘given’. The developing brain is significantly sensitive to input from primary relationships, interactions and the environment. From a biological and scientific perspective, humans are wired for emotional and social connection from birth. The first three years of life are thus often referred to as a sensitive period. The changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built. For the brain’s neural networks to develop normally during this sensitive period, a child needs responsive and timely input. For example, it is during face-to-face interactions that babies and children practice the art of conversation and build trust in their parents/caregivers (Jiang et al 2012; Yun, 2013; Siegel, 2012; Trevarthen, 2011; Ramachandran, 2010; Bowlby, 1953; Erikson, 1950).

Concerns regarding early brain function and the ability to focus are recognized (Christakis 2009; Zimmerman et al. 2007). Research studies on infant brain development and language acquisition (Kuhl, 2010; Zimmerman and Meltzoff, 2007; Hayne et al, 2003; Barr and Hayne 1999; Meltzoff, 1988) consistently show that meaningful interactions in ‘real time’ are vital in facilitating concentration, language and communication. Evidence demonstrates that children as young as two years old have regular, often unsupervised access to tech devices (Holloway et al. 2013; Livingstone et al. 2011), and the last six years has seen a substantial rise in children aged below nine years using the internet (Helsper et al, 2013).

When it is shared, supervised time, say for twenty minutes playing a game or tapping into one of the many quality educational ‘apps’, can be enjoyable for both child and adult. Indeed, some educational programmes exert beneficial effects on cognition and language in pre-schoolers. Television programmes and games such as Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues enhance young children’s cognitive and language skills (Shmidt et al, 2007; Linebargar, 2005; Zill et al, 1994). Developmental difficulties set in when it is used as a replacement for adult engagement – which has become all too familiar. Like the use of a ‘dummy’ (pacifier), these devices are being used to replace the adult’s role in comforting and engaging our youngest children and this manifests in school on a daily basis. It is all too common for children to enter school without the basic skills to communicate (including the ability to read emotions in others), and regulate their emotions. Human communication cannot be replaced by screen-based activity and this is the message that teachers should not feel afraid to remind parents. The American Academy of Paediatrics (2016: 2) reminds us that:

It is important to emphasize to parents that the higher order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play, as well as responsive parent–child interactions.

The higher order skills referred to, reside in the prefrontal cortex, which is in frontal lobe of a child’s brain – these skills take longer to acquire than other skills and hence require a lot of real-life practice, repetition and adult guidance to embed and develop. Impulse control, the ability to delay gratification, to motivate oneself and to regulate one’s own emotions are difficult to master at the best of times for a young child. What is worrying is that acquisition of these skills is now being hijacked by excessive use of tech devices which not only results in these skills failing to develop but also addictive behaviour. Bavelier et al (2010: 5) explain:

A key issue for future research concerns the neural pathways involved in pathological use of technology. The fronto-striatal pathway, which is strongly implicated in both drug addiction and behavioural disorders such as pathological gambling, is also activated by interaction with certain types of media technology, particularly video games.

During our usual exchange of enthusiastic emails with American paediatrician Laura Jana, I asked her to share her thoughts concerning the fundamental impact of digital media on the young brain. Her thoughts mirrored mine, and the abundant existing evidence:

Technology is fuelling such rapid change and such overwhelming access to data and information that it’s not enough to know facts and figures, but rather a great need to be able to adapt, interpret, make sense and filter information. At its core, this requires executive function skills which undergo considerable development, especially when cultivated by a caring responsive adult, between ages 3-5. Laura Jana (2016) Personal written communication.

So, the question is no longer ‘Is technology rewiring my child’s brain?’ But ‘How is my child’s brain adapting to this constantly plugged-in, online world?’ Observational, anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests that children are not coping – and therefore adapting with this seismic shift. Parents and teachers thus play a critical role in supporting young children to adapt and at its heart this means being a positive role model – a simple start would be to put the tech devices down and take the time to attentively engage with our children. Parents need to set boundaries for their children as well as themselves, so that a healthy balance is maintained and their child can be best enabled to flourish. We need to be more proactive in supporting children and their families to understand the benefits – and the short and long term developmental risks posed by excessive use.

Unplug and connect

The ability to communicate effectively is a lifelong skill, with its foundations laid in early infancy. The ability to master the building blocks of language is therefore a critical aspect of child development (Trevarthen 2013; Kuhl 2011; Pinker 2007). Research taken from fMRI studies is gradually beginning to inform educators about the brain’s responses to poor attachments, persistent, toxic stress and threatening situations. We know all too well that when a child does not have a safe emotional base from which to understand and experience the world, their social, emotional and cognitive development becomes adversely affected. Immordino-Yang and Damasio (2007: 1) explain:

Recent advances in neuroscience are highlighting connections between emotion, social functioning, and decision making that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the role of affect in education. The neurobiological evidence suggests that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion.

Helping very young children learn through hands-on experiences can create neural networks in the orbitofrontal cortex (situated just behind the eyes and responsible for decision making and problem-solving). Repetition of such experiences not only creates more neural networks but also strengthens synaptic connections in the orbitofrontal cortex. Put simply, this means that the more involved a child is in their learning, the more beneficial it is for their developing brain (Stalnaker et al, 2015; Rolls 2004). Neuroscience is now providing further evidence when it comes to understanding just how much the young brain is capable of. Gopnik et al (2010: Preface) explain:

The research shows that babies and young children know and learn more than we could ever have imagined. They think, draw conclusions, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments. Scientists and children belong together because they are the best learners in the universe.

What you can do

    1. Swap roles! Adults often bemoan the onset of the endless ‘why?’ questions – we need to learn from children and do likewise!
    2. Raise the issue of screen time with parents. This will provide insight into how much shared and unsupervised screen time children have. You can also talk through ways to reduce this – for both children and parents
    3. Consider how your setting can incorporate findings from educational neuroscience inform daily practice
    4. Engage in sustained shared thinking with all children. This joint inquiry and experiential learning can help to improve children’s concentration, communication and ability to engage in joint problem-solving
    5. Build in activities (not homework!) for parents to do with their child at home. ‘About Me’ bags are popular with younger children
    6. Reflect on your provision for ‘quiet time’ during the routine. Is sufficient time and space created to encourage young children to pause and reflect, away from distractions?

In line with this rapidly evolving digital age, I would suggest we equip ourselves with current, scientific evidence provided by neuroscience. Wolfe (2007), an educational consultant and expert on brain research, believes that the answer lies with early childhood educators to help bridge the gap between the field of neuroscience research and education. Wolfe (2007), cited in Rushton (2011: 92), explains:

It is our responsibility as early childhood educators to understand that every child each school year represents a virtual explosion of dendritic growth. We are so fortunate to be in a profession where we can create learning opportunities to best support young children’s development and their biological wiring, so let’s start there.

The expeditious advancement of the digital age and the general rapidity of modern life may well be just another phase of human development that we are currently unable to fully comprehend and thus control. One thing I am quite certain of is that utilising evidence from disciplines like neuroscience can provide useful insight into children’s developing brains and how this is being altered by a lack of quality interactions and environments, and excessive access to tech devices from a very young age. Dowling (2004: 4) expresses in no uncertain terms the pressing need to utilize findings from neuroscience to better inform parenting, education and care:

The challenge of understanding how the brain develops and how that understanding might help in raising the next generations to the best of our and their abilities is key to the future of humankind. Let’s make it a New Year resolution to reduce the time plugged into our tech devices and instead, look to increasing meaningful interactions with our youngest.

Wishing you a wonderful 2017!

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