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Experts: Put those iPads (and phones, and televisions, and computers) away

Early brain development stunted with excessive technology use

POSTED: March 30, 2014 12:03 a.m.

Nairika Cornett has always kept her children’s exposure to technology to a minimum, but it was a hassle.

“When we asked them to stop it, not only did they throw a fit to stop but then even, I would say a good half hour after, trying to get their attention was a battle,” Cornett said. “I mean, literally it was to the point where they could even throw a little tantrum. It was like it had to leave their system and they went back to being our normal kids again.”

So around four years ago, Cornett instituted a new rule: No technology use during the week. That means no tablets, no smartphones and no television.

“Every time for the first couple of weeks when we didn’t allow the technology, they kept saying ‘We’re bored,’” she said. “And then I realized they needed to be fed from the outside. Playtime on their own.”

It turns out Cornett’s instincts weren’t far from the mark.

The medical recommendation is absolutely no technology for children younger than 2 and only a couple of hours of exposure thereafter.

“No television, at all,” pediatrician Eugene Cindea with The Longstreet Clinic said. “With regard to brain development, one of the issues has been that electronics, particularly videos and computers, have displaced parental involvement in their children’s development.

“The best way to teach your child is to not have him watch a television screen but to have him interact with his favorite person in the entire world, and that’s his mom or his dad.”

The human brain experiences rapid growth and development during the first two years of life, and constant exposure to the flickering of a television screen or computer monitor doesn’t provide the positive reinforcement a child needs to develop brain pathways — the method of how the brain communicates within itself.

Even educational programming like the popular “Baby Einstein” series and even “Sesame Street” aren’t exempt.

“You don’t just have intellectual stimulation, you have social stimulation,” Cindea said. “You’re not going to pick up social cues from a television screen. You’re not going to get the positive reinforcement of a smile to a response from a television screen. You’re not going to get the positive reinforcement of something newly developed from a television screen.

“We develop and reinforce brain pathways through positive and negative reinforcements,” he continued. “So, if you’re passively learning or you’re passively looking, you’re not developing those kind of reinforced pathways.”

The lure of technology comes naturally to children, who already have short attention spans. Television programs, video games and smartphone apps rarely hold a screenshot for longer than 3 seconds, so there’s always something to captivate the mind.

Pediatrician William Boyd with Pediatric Associates spoke about that at a recent Cocktails & Conversations event hosted by United Way.

He explained how adults can learn how to ignore distractions, like a car alarm.

“Babies can’t do that,” Boyd said. “They turn to everything they see. So when you see these programs, there’s hardly ever more than 3 seconds between a frame on any of these things.”

The constant switching back and forth can increase hyperactivity and attention issues.

“It reinforces a short attention span,” Cindea said. “So what we’re finding is you establish better learning parameters for children if they’re interacted with by their caregivers.”

But those naturally shortened attention spans make it easy to fall back and use the TV as a babysitter.

“So when they’re coloring they may only color for a few minutes,” Cindea said, laughing. “One of the frustrating things for a father is when you’re building a really cool castle, and your kid comes running through the middle of it. He’s tired of that thing. He wants to build a new one, and he wants it to change.”

After those first two years of brain development, use of technology should still be limited. Pediatricians admitted it’s a balancing act, especially as schools become technology-driven, even in the earliest elementary levels.

Gainesville’s Fair Street School has been touted as technology-heavy, with devices available for each of the older students. Kindergartners have computer stations and “smart” tables that resemble giant tablets in their classrooms.

Technology and computer use is prevalent in the Hall County School District as well. “Smart” boards are used often, allowing students and teachers to interact more easily. Some schools, like Lyman Hall Elementary, have in-house iPod Touches that students use for research.

“As our society has moved more and more toward electronics and more toward electronic information, we have an entire generation that grew up on that,” Cindea said. Some children may learn better with an interactive computer, he added.

There’s also the benefit of some educational computer programs or quizzes, as they provide instant positive or negative feedback. And early research, Cindea said, shows use may even help improve hand-eye coordination.

Basically, if a child can get past those first two years without exposure to technology, he’ll be much better equipped later in life, even if exposed to more than two hours of technology in a classroom. But then it’s even more important for him to have the technology limited at home.

Cornett’s children, now 8 and 6, both attend Centennial Arts Academy. They know to not even ask to watch TV or play a computer game during the week. Shayaan, her youngest, doesn’t even really care for television over the weekends. And her oldest son, Kamyaab, is an avid reader, logging 37 hours of reading just this past month.

She said there’s enough technology within the school walls that she doesn’t feel as if her children are missing out.

“We feel like, they’re going to learn it anyway,” Cornett said. “They’re not going to be left out. There are iPads in schools.”


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