It’s hard to believe, but the iPad has only been part of our world for 8 years. And the iPhone has been around just a little longer—a mere 11 years. During that tiny slice of human history, people everywhere have become lit up by glowing screens. I’m no exception, and certainly no Luddite: I have a smartphone and two tablets, and so does my wife. They are great tools and offer multiple conveniences upon which we have come to rely.
But what about the effects of screen time on developing brains? It starts shockingly young; a recent UK study showed that 51% of children between 6-to-11 months old use touch screens daily. (Cheung CHM, Vota W; LSE Department of Media and Communications. What Are the Effects of Touchscreens on Toddler Development? )
The short answer is that we don’t know yet. Since all these new types of electronic stimuli are such recent additions to the human family, the research and observations are only beginning to trickle in. Some experts say the entire discussion centers around the high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech choice. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s not just the amount of time children spend in front of glowing screens, but also what kids are doing on those screens that counts. And that’s where finding the balance between screen time and helping kids develop creativity enters this discussion.
In the foreword to Mitchel Resnick’s book, Lifelong Kindergarten, Cultivating Creativity, Dr. Ken Robinson writes: “Why does creativity matter anyway? Because being creative is part of what it means to be human. Creativity is developing original ideas that have value, and it has driven human achievement on every front since the dawn of history. The roots of human creativity lie in our unique powers of imagination, the ability to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses. Creativity is a step beyond imagination: it is putting your imagination to work.” He continues, “Every child is born with immense natural talents. How they develop has much to do with the environment in which they are raised and the opportunities they are given. Education should be among the best of those opportunities. Too often, it isn’t.”
We often look to schools to help our kids develop their skills—including creativity—but part of the change going on with education these days involves feeding kids a steady stream of educational stimuli digitally, with less human interaction than ever before, and that’s turning out to be far from a one-size-fits-all affair, just as other aspects of education have demonstrated. Not all kids learn best in the same ways, at the same pace, or in similar environments. (See a list of my blogs about dyslexia and other ways of learning differently.).
Here’s the thing about too much screen time: by constantly flooding young, developing minds with a heady stream of intense visual imagery, the neurosynaptic development of the parts of the brain where creativity is supposed to dwell and be nurtured can become stunted. Children can literally be deprived of the opportunity for their inner landscape to develop organically through the interruption of the innate ability to create their own visual imagery. And the lasting consequences of that series of developmental events is staggering to contemplate.
I’m not saying technology is all bad, and neither are the experts (well, most of them, anyway). There are countless apps out there that claim to foster learning, development, reading, and literacy, for example. But early research is pointing to the need for hands-on, real-world play with three-dimensional toys like blocks and Legos as being key aspects of fostering creativity. And as the attached references bear out, children under 5 years of age will almost always learn best from and opt for live, immersive interactions with family members or caregivers involving activities such as talking, being read to, and playing.
In contrast, fast-paced, highly stimulating, or violent digital content can negatively impact the brain’s executive function, and the effects appear to be cumulative. (Lillard AS, Peterson J. The immediate impact of different types of television on young children’s executive function. Pediatrics 2011;128(4):644–9.)
But what’s a busy, tired, overwhelmed, overworked parent to do? Here are a few things I invite you to consider:
- Consider minimizing your own screen time when the kids are around, especially during meals, playtime, or shared activities. Instead, consider prioritizing conversation, teaching moments (brushing teeth, tying shoes, washing hands, polite interaction, to name a few), and consistent daily routines.
- Be present and engaged when screens are on, and, whenever possible, co-view with your child.
- Pay attention to messages about gender, body image, violence, diversity and social issues when choosing content.
- Focus on shared reading and playtime activities that encourage your child’s imagination, and offer words of praise and support for any creative moments, activities, or projects your child generates.
- Select quality content purposefully, i.e., let’s watch/play this now, for this reason.
What have you found workable with your family? How are you and your family creating a good balance between hands-on play time and screen life? I look forward to you joining in the discussion.
- Li H, Boguszewski K, Lillard AS. Can that really happen? Children’s knowledge about the reality status of fantastical events in television. J Exp Child Psychol 2015;139:99–114.
- Lerner C, Barr R. Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight; Research-Based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 Years Old. Zero to Three 2014. www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/screen-sense-setting-the-record-straight
- Radesky JS, Schumacher J, Zuckerman B. Mobile and interactive media use by young children: The good, the bad, and the unknown. Pediatrics 2015;135(1):1–3.
- Marsh J, Plowman L, Ymada-Rice Det al. Exploring Play and Creativity in Preschoolers’ Use of Apps: A Report for Early Years Practitioners. www.techandplay.org/reports/TAP_Early_Years_Report.pdf (Accessed April 11, 2017).
- Courage ML, Howe ML. To watch or not to watch: Infants and toddlers in a brave new electronic world. Dev Rev 2010;30(2):101–15.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. Media and young minds. Pediatrics 2016;138(5):e20162591.
- Radesky JS, Kistin C, Eisenberg Set al. Parent perspectives on their mobile technology use: The excitement and exhaustion of parenting while connected. J Dev Behav Pediatr 2016;37(9):694–701.
- Livingstone S, Smith PK. Annual research review: Harms experienced by child users of online and mobile technologies: The nature, prevalence, and management of sexual and aggressive risks in the digital age. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2014;55(6):635–54.
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