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Babies and TV: brain development needs a parent’s help – here’s why

A child’s development is largely determined by experiences. These days, those experiences increasingly involve the use of technology. Television, the internet, tablets and smartphones are all familiar to the youngest of eyes.

For instance, in 2011, 10% of children under two had used a smartphone, tablet, or similar device. In 2013, that proportion was 38%. Five years on, the figure is likely to be far far higher. Is this increased use of technology affecting children’s development? I suspect that it is.

The human brain is a dynamic system which is constantly adapting to its external environment. When aspects of that environment change, from being shown images on a computer screen for example, the brain changes as well). And it is widely thought that the infant brain is more malleable than the adult one).

But are changes brought about by increased use of technology actually noticeable – and are they persistent? Are they positive or negative? There are also various elements which could have an effect. The type of technology used, for example, the duration or frequency of exposure, and the content.

These are important issues to examine – and similar ones have been looked at by researchers before. For instance, one study famously found that listening to Mozart enhanced a child’s performance on some IQ tests, leading to a boom in sales of the great composer’s music.

However, subsequent (more detailed) investigations found the effect is not specific to classical music. In fact, it is observed whenever an experience leads to a similar increase in arousal and mood). And, as any music fan knows, the effect of music on arousal and mood can never be permanent.

Despite numerous interesting studies looking at technology use in older children, very few have yielded data on children under the age of two. The largest study to date found that watching TV alone had a negative impact on language comprehension in children aged from eight to 16 months. But watching TV with a parent did not. This suggests that the relationship between TV and language reflects a lack of parent-child interaction rather than television exposure per se.

Screen media has also been associated with poorer sleep quantity and quality, partly because of an association between technology use and later bedtimes – and also because of over-stimulation, hyper-arousal and the suppression of the hormone melatonin.

Some believe that content is key. Julie Aigner-Clark, an American stay-at-home mother, shot a video with “educational” content in 1996, which was so well received that she ended up selling the rights to “Baby Einstein” to Disney for US$25m and was praised by former US president George H.W. Bush, for her “enterprising spirit”.

A decade later, Disney apparently admitted that the videos may have no educational value and a study found no evidence that one-year-olds learned anything from watching Baby Einstein. It was even suggested by child psychologist Richard House that providing infants with “virtual, techno-magic worlds” confuses them and is “tantamount to child abuse”.

But the usefulness of screen media may actually vary, depending on the content and the child’s age. Although there is evidence that 15-month-olds can learn American Sign Language from instructional videos (like patting the head to indicate “hat”) there is no evidence that children under two can learn words from them.

Some research suggests that children are more likely to learn and remember words from a live presentation than a video. And two-year-olds are more likely to locate a hidden object when they are given clues from an actor interacting with them through speech and gesture via a live video link than when the same information is provided through a pre-recorded video clip.

Watch with mother (or father or guardian)

So perhaps live interaction stimulates different neural circuits than passive listening. This seems to be the case for songbirds (zebra finches) learning their song from their father and it fits with evidence that the infant brain rapidly tunes to socially relevant information. For example, four-month-olds respond more to a person whose actions match their own as their sense of self develops and they become more aware of the external world.

Active engagement may have other benefits too. Using a touch screen (but not watching a video) has been associated with the ability to stack small blocks – so touchscreen technology may provide benefits a TV cannot. Infants are also drawn to movement, so a well-designed touchscreen app may attract and facilitate infants’ selective attention, as well as their hand-eye coordination.

But no matter the benefits of technology use, it is important to remember that language development typically and best occurs within the context of direct human to human social interaction. Parent-child interaction is often reduced when the television is on.

Even if we find that technology engages children under two and facilitates their cognitive and motor development, the emerging picture suggests that technology use should supplement – not replace – parent-child interaction.

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