What do smartphones do for your child’s brain?

Boys Laughing with Video Game

Research is clear about the benefits of face-to-face parent-child interactions over watching TV. Children have a much better chance to learn new vocabulary from human interactions than from a TV programme (here’s why), including even those which have been designed with a very young audience in mind. A new experimental study shows that parents interact less and say fewer things to their toddlers, when the TV is on in the background than when it is not. Another new study shows that having TV on in the background diverts young children’s attention away from play and learning. In this latter study, exposure to non-age-appropriate TV is associated with poorer cognitive abilities.

But time spent on TV and other media impacts not only young children’s language and cognitive abilities. Time spent on TV and gaming adversely affects the development of young children’s social skills and emotional understanding. A recent experimental study found that children’s emotional intelligence (specifically, their ability to recognize emotions) improved when they had the opportunity to interact with their peers for 5 smartphone-free days. A recent nation-wide study in the UK involving 5,000 children aged between 10 and 15 years, also reveals fewer emotional and social problems among those who spend less than an hour a day on video games.

Research about the psychological impact of children’s access to smart phones is still playing catch-up, but findings from a 2014 study involving 3,604 children links longer use of electronic media to poorer mental well-being among children as young as 2 to 6 years of age. In this study, young children’ emotional problems increase with each additional hour they spend watching TV and/or playing electronic games.

In short, it’s important to provide your children with opportunities to learn through social interactions and face-to-face conversations. Looking for some alternatives to electronic media and TV programming? Here are some ways to boost your child’s learning:

1. Read to your kids
“The number of words a child hears in early life will determine their academic success and IQ in later life”. This fact is the one reason why boosting your child’s early spoken language skills and capacity for understanding speech is so important.

A host of studies find that reading to young children promotes their language, reading, thinking, motor, emotional and social skills (here’s the science explained). The tendency for mums to read and talk to their babies while breastfeeding them, may also be the reason why breastfed children score well on IQ tests and at school.

A new study shows that reading to children as early as 9 months of age boosts school readiness in terms of their maths and reading skills.

2. Choose picture books with a story
Reading benefits children’s language in the long-term, when parents read picture books with a story rather than flashcard-type picture books. A 2014 study shows that toddlers could learn sophisticated animal facts when parents read to them from a book where animals were part of a story.

3. Engage in conversations with your baby
Babies often sound like they’re just making gurgly sounds when they haven’t learnt to say words which we use. But a new study shows that if mothers vocally respond to their baby’s babbling as if having a conversation with their baby, infants are more likely to develop language earlier.

4. Napping is good for the young ones too
A 2014 study shows that infants and preschoolers are better at retaining newly learnt information after they nap. Here’s a bit more evidence for the importance of sleep.

5. Feed your baby’s brain with frequent snacks
A 2013 local study found that toddlers whose parents spent more time reading to their children and who had snacks in addition to their main meals, to have relatively larger vocabularies. A 2007 study finds that breakfast foods which provide a steady supply of glucose to the brain (which, not surprising consumes far more energy among young children than adults), such as oats, helps children maintain their attention in class.

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Television for babies

TV for babies

Recent reports and forum letters question the promotion of an ipad baby seat (e.g., “Infant iPad seats raise concerns about screen time for babies“, Washington Post, 11 Dec 2013; “Some unanswered questions“, Straits Times, 17 Dec 2013; see Psychology Today for some answers). These highlight a growing concern about using ipad games and youtube video programming as babysitters.

Research findings are clear about the benefits of real human interactions for language development. As this TED talk demonstrates, learning from a human being is different from listening to the same words overheard from an audio-video source, such as TV (here’s the science behind it all).

Numerous studies show that precocious language development in infancy is associated with parents who speak often to their babies. In contrast, there appears to be only moderate benefits for language acquisition from watching an educational programme like Dora the explorer. In fact, TV is strongly discouraged for toddlers and infants (AAP).

It has been suggested that longterm exposure to TV programming at an early age is associated with shorter attention spans (“Limit your child’s TV time“, Straits Times, 29 Dec 2013; NY Times, 9 May 2011). But that evidence is correlational in nature. Children who have shorter attention spans tend to watch more television. It may not be the case that TV shortens their attention span. Instead, attention deficits are recognised to have other causes (The US CDC has this useful factsheet).

Social interactions are also opportunities for learning. Which is what makes play an important element for children’s learning, as this commentary in The Independent (12 Jan 2014), “Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less” explains. And time spent watching TV is not time spent playing.

On the other hand, playing together with young children on the iPad provides similar benefits to that gained with a picture book, as others have suggested (“Parenting in the age of apps: Is that iPad help or harm?“). iPads aren’t all that bad as long as they’re not the babysitter.