Worry about what screens are doing to your young child’s brain? Here’s help.

By Valerie Strauss

November 13

When I talk with parents these days, they often say that their children’s lives are very different from what their own childhoods were like. Frequently, they name technology as the single biggest change in their kids’ lives—and in their own lives, too. Many parents go on to say that their children are on screens more than they want them to be, and that screen use is often a source of conflict with their children. Many express uncertainties about however they are letting their kids use screens, and a sense that they might be doing it “wrong.” I’m hoping that the ideas in this report will resonate in a positive way for readers by providing some helpful new information and support on this challenging topic — that’s my goal in writing this.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, early-childhood expert and author

That’s the start of a new primer for parents about raising young children in the digital age at a time when research on how media affects brain development is still not clear.  “Young Children in the Digital Age: A Parent’s Guide,” was written by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early-childhood education expert, who has spent decades advocating for allowing young children learn through play. As she writes in the primer:

A child’s whole development, brain development included, is best supported when young kids have full-on opportunities to use their whole bodies and senses for activity, play, and social interaction.

However, for well over a decade, school reforms that have concentrated on using student standardized test scores to evaluate children, teachers and/or schools have led to a reduction — and sometimes elimination — of play-based learning in the earliest grades and a concentration instead on academics. Along with that focus is a growth in the use of computers, tablets and other screen-based tools for increasingly younger students to use to learn.

Research is anything but definitive on how screen time affects brain development in young people, though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that for children younger than 18 months, parents avoid the use of screen media other than to video chat.

It also recommends that parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing. And for children ages 2 to 5 years, the recommendation is that screen time be limited to one hour per day of high-quality programs.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government just released new guidelines for physical activity for Americans of all ages, saying:

Preschool-aged children (ages 3 through 5 years) should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development.

Adult caregivers of preschool-aged children should encourage active play that includes a variety of activity types.

Carlsson-Paige is a professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., where she prepared teachers for more than 30 years and was a founder of the university’s Center for Peaceable Schools.

She is also the author of “Taking Back Childhood” and a founding member of a nonprofit called Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early-childhood education and advocates sane policies for young children. The mother of actor Matt Damon and artist Kyle Damon, she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Legacy Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps for work over several decades on behalf of children and families.

[Early childhood education expert: I saw a brilliant way to teach kids. Unfortunately it wasn’t in the United States.]

The primer, published by Defending the Early Years, discusses six core ideas about child development. The following comes from the report:

1) Young children use their whole bodies and all of their senses to learn about the world.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of specific research about how media use affects brain development. But what we do know is that the experiences a child has shape brain development. As the child moves, interacts, and uses her senses, neural activity in the brain is stimulated. One neuroscientist wrote, “You hold him on your lap and talk … and neurons from his ears start hard-wiring connections to the auditory cortex. And you thought you were just playing with your kid.”

A child’s whole development, brain development included, is best supported when young kids have full-on opportunities to use their whole bodies and senses for activity, play, and social interaction.

 2) Young children learn from direct, firsthand experience in the real world.

When a child looks at a screen, not only is she more passive, but also her attention shifts away from her own initiative. … Presenting a child with images on a 2-D screen short changes a child by giving her far too little to go on, too little information on which to build concepts needed in order to build the foundation for later learning.

 3) Young children learn by inventing ideas.

Children don’t learn optimally when we try to put information into their heads directly. Most of us probably remember having to learn some things by rote when we were in school. And most of us probably know that we forgot what we learned quite quickly. For genuine learning to happen, kids need to construct ideas for themselves, in their own minds. This is the kind of learning that is real and genuine and stays with us.

 4) Young children make sense of their world through play.

Because play is such a vital resource for healthy development, it is worrisome to observe the significant decline in children’s play today. Children are now playing less both at home and in school.

 5) Young children learn inner resilience and coping skills through play.

Giving kids undefined materials allows them to reach inward to create the props and symbols they need to get the most out of their play. This can’t happen when we give them defined toys or screen apps or games because the images are pre-set. They determine what happens in the play and impede a child from accessing his or her own imagination and emotional needs.

 6) Children live and learn in a context of social relationships.

Today, the context in which children are developing socially and emotionally is changing rapidly and dramatically. Children are playing less both in school and at home and therefore, have less experience interacting with other kids. And it seems, judging from the research, that many children have less time or less focused time with parents. Many parents are less available to children because of time spent with technology. Because child development theory would tell us that children need lots of social interaction for healthy development, it is a concern that they are getting less of it today.