Health Team

Interaction, even through screens, is important for children's brain development

Posted August 1

For years, child development experts have warned against television viewing for babies and young toddlers, but the popularity of hand-held devices gives parents another screen to be concerned about.

For babies and toddlers, their brains are like a sponge. They need to soak up things that help them develop speech and recognize numbers, letters, shapes and colors.

The proper types of videos and games on a TV screen or electronic devices are important. However, being age-appropriate might even be more important. Keeping the youngest children away from all electronic devices is best for those crucial months when a child's speech is still developing, said Cleveland Clinic pediatrician Dr. Kimberly Giuliano.

"Children learn speech by experiencing it and having that communication and interaction with a human being," Giuliano said. "So, while a device may be exposing them to words, there's not that back and forth reciprocal interaction that teaches them the social piece behind it all, and that' s where children really learn and solidify their language skills."

Recent research looked at more than 1,000 children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years over a period of four years. The new study, titled "Is handheld screen time use associated with language delay in infants?", was originally presented on May 4 at the 2017 Pediatric Academies Society Meeting.

For every 30 minutes of hand-held screen time per day, young children were more likely to have a delay in their ability to use sounds and words, according to the study.

Giulano said that once a child is 18 months old, it's fine to expose them to educational programming, but they shouldn't be watching it alone. She recommends a parent or caregiver watch the program with the toddle and then talk about it or interact with them to provide reinforcement that helps them learn from the programming.

Regardless of a child's age, though, Giuliano said it's important to set time limits for using devices or watching television.

"We still should be somewhat mindful of the time and spending hours and hours on end doing any activity over and over again—(it's) not good for a developing brain," Giuliano said. "So, doing these for very short periods of time and trying to limit it to less than 30 minutes a day is probably very appropriate for young toddlers."

Not all screen time is created equal, though. Giuliano said face-to-face video chats with a grandparent or relative are the exception to the rule. Positive social interaction is good for children of all ages, whether it's in person or with a live screen chat, she said.

The point isn't so much concerns about the screen itself but its effect on the child's speech.

WRAL Health Team's Dr. Allen Mask said chatting with another person isn't the only way to help develop a child's speech, though. Mask said a child's brain development, and their future ability to read, is benefited most by sitting down with their parent or caregiver to read an age-appropriate book.

The benefit is not from passive exposure to pictures in a book or video images on a screen, it's the social interaction that really helps a young brain develop, which is key to their future success in school and in life.


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