3 Building Blocks for Thriving Kids Brains in The Digital Age
I'm delighted to have Dr Kristy Goodwin write this guest post on a topic very close to my heart and I'm sure to you as a caring parent or caregiver. Thank you Kristy.
You've seen it. The toddler who navigates her Mum’s smartphone faster than she can. The five-year old fixated on his video game console in the waiting room of the doctor’s surgery. The eight year-old obsessed with Minecraft, so much so that he races to quickly complete his homework just so he can jump online again and start playing. Again.
There is no denying that today’s children are leading ‘digitalised childhoods’. Screens and devices saturate their daily lives. Digital technology is omnipresent. Today’s children are growing up in a world that pings, beeps and flashes. They pinch, swipe and zoom (and sometimes they can do this before they have learnt to walk or talk).
So as parents should we be worried? Are these devices having an adverse effect on young children’s development? What do children’s brains really need for optimal development?
Let me start be re-assuring you that it is not all doom and gloom. We have increasing research evidence showing us that when technology is used in intentional and developmentally-appropriate ways young children can learn with and benefit from technology. Phew! You can breathe a sigh of relief.
But before you rush to hand over your smartphone, there are some absolutely vital things that parents must first consider. I like to call these the ‘brain basics’.
Brain Basics – Ancestral Parenting
Thanks to advances in neuro- and developmental science, we now know more than ever about how young children’s brains are built and it’s not complicated. In fact, it is really very simple. The way our grandparents parented is in fact the ideal model. It is called ‘ancestral parenting’. These are the basic things that brains need to develop.
So what does ‘ancestral’ parenting look like in a digital world?
Essential Building Blocks for Brains:
There are three essential building blocks for learning in a digital age. They are vital ingredients that your grandparents would have used.
1. Relationships- It is essential that children form loving, stable and close attachments to their parents/care-givers. Children need relationships. When children have strong attachments to adults it frees up the brain to focus on other important areas of development. Stressed or anxious brains cannot learn. Secure and happy brains can learn.
Technology can foster relationships. We have new communication tools like Skype that allow young children to form relationships with family members who live interstate or abroad. I know that when my son was 18 months-old, he loved his weekly Skype calls with his great-Grandmother. They would sing nursery rhymes and songs over Skype. It was brilliant!
However, when technology is used excessively, it can hamper the development of relationships. Excessive technology use can displace opportunities for building relationships. When children are using a screen they are often not engaging in face-to-face, real-time conversations. We must think carefully about helping children manage their media consumption, so that they do not use technology excessively. Today’s children need media diets. As parents, we must also teach children not to constantly rely on technology to pacify or entertain them. We need to teach children how they can manage media and not let media manage them.
2. Language- It is critical that young children are exposed to and use as much language as possible. A child’s vocabulary is a very good indicator of their later academic performance. Sadly, we know that by 18-months of age, there are stark differences between children’s vocabulary scores and this gap continues to widen as they get older.
So does this mean we should ban TV and iPads? No. Instead, we need to try, where possible, to co-view with our children when they are using technology. That means watching and using technology with your child. This might mean watching TV or playing a video game with your child.
It means minimising the times that technology is used as a digital baby-sitter. [Now before you panic and think that you have ‘ruined’ your child because they watch TV while you prepare dinner, rest assured that this is unlikely. As a parent I understand that co-viewing is not always possible. But when it is possible, try to use media with your child.]
Why co-view? Co-viewing has been shown to actually improve a child’s language development, especially when it comes to TV viewing. Co-viewing forces children to engage with what they are seeing and/or doing on-screen. It helps them to connect what they are seeing on a screen to real life. It also stops the ‘zombie effect’ where children become transfixed by what is on-screen. [Have you ever tried to talk to your child while they are playing a video game? If so, you know what I am talking about.]
As parents, we also need to look for opportunities for children to collaborate with siblings or peers when they use technology. Children need to talk when they are using gadgets, not sit there passively and consume. When children use media with others it forces them to communicate and use language. There is a range of fantastic apps that encourage children to interact and use language. Many of the apps by Toca Boca encourage interaction. There are also some fantastic apps that allow children to very easily create digital stories. Storytelling is a wonderful way to support children’s language development. Toontastic is a brilliant app that allows children to create, publish and share very professional-looking, animated stories.
3. Sleep- As a parent I don’t need to remind you about how important sleep is for young children. In fact, it is essential for all of us (ask any sleep-deprived parent and they’ll reiterate this). Young children require sleep to ensure healthy brain development. Sleep is essential for learning and memory consolidation. However, digital technologies have the potential to cause sleep problems for children (and for us adults).
In today’s digitally-saturated world, there are many new devices and screens that tempt young children. We now have a range of devices like video game consoles and tablets that appeal to young children (and adults) and often delay sleep time. A recent study showed that screen time in the 90 minutes before children’s bedtime can cause sleep delays. Rapid-fire TV or video games may over-stimulate young children and activate areas of the brain that require more passive activities before the onset of sleep. Over time these sleep delays can accumulate and cause an overall sleep deficit. So what can you do? With children avoid the use of screens in the 90 minutes before bedtime.
So there are three simple building blocks for brain development in a digital age. As you can see, I am not talking about banning technology. These gadgets and devices are here to stay (the iPad won’t be un-invented). So rather than fearing these technologies, we need to look for ways to leverage them. How can we use technology with young children in ways that will support and enhance their development, not stifle it?
In the Our Happy Children course, I am delighted to be able to share more information with you about how children learn and develop in a digital age. I will focus on the simple, everyday things that parents can do to ensure that they harness the positive potential of digital technologies like iPads, TV and video games, whilst minimising any possible harmful effects. We will explore how technology is changing the way today’s children learn and develop, current screen time recommendations, features to look for in quality apps/TV programs and games and physical safety issues to consider before allowing your child to use technology (WiFi exposure, posture and eyesight).
Dr Kristy Goodwin is a mum and children’s technology researcher. She helps confused and concerned parents navigate the digital world in which they are parenting. She shares tips and ideas on her blog, via her Facebook page and Twitter. Download a free copy of ‘A Parents’ Essential Guide to the iPad’ eBook here.
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