Technology's impact on childhood brain, language development

Dec 21, 2019

There have been plenty of studies surrounding the development of the human brain, but nowadays, scientists are increasingly looking at how modern technology impacts language development in children. As one researcher can attest, it’s not as simple as “screens are bad.”

Dr. Michael Rich is the director of the Center on Media and Child Health and the Clinic for Interactive Media and Internet Disorders. He joined “Take Care” to talk about his and other’s research on language development and how modern technology plays into it.

Rich said that baby’s brains are elastic, so the first three years of life are critical for both language and overall brain development. Unlike other animals, humans are born with embryonic brains, rendering babies helpless and in need of caregivers while also providing a developmental advantage.

“What that allows us to do is to build our brains in response to the challenges and stimuli of the environment we’re in,” Rich said. “We’re born with all the neurons we’re ever going to get, so the process of brain-building is really synaptic connections … between those neurons.”

The connections between neurons that are used repeatedly get reinforced and more engrained in a baby’s mind, while those connections that are not used as much get “pruned away,” severing that connection. Rich said this process is typically healthy, though.

“That improves our signal-to-noise ratio so that we can go from the primitive startled reflex when we hear any noise to understanding that this noise is Mommy’s voice, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

In the first three years of life, the brain triples in volume due to these synaptic connections, making it critical that stimuli and challenges babies receive within that time frame are the kinds of challenges that help babies build creative, flexible and resilient brains, Rich said.

A similar early critical stage can be seen with language development. The first nine months of life are important for a child’s understanding of sounds and how they should be interpreted, and children are often capable of understanding language long before they can actually speak it.

“When babies sign with very simple hand signals, they actually develop language structures even earlier than when they start babbling,” Rich said. “It is essential to communicate with the child by whatever means as early as possible … so they get used to hearing the sounds and understanding the meanings as they build their brains.”

This early communication could be signing, speaking or both, Rich said, as long as it helps introduce language early on.

A recent study focused on how screen time impacts language development in children, finding that children who spent more time on a screen instead of talking suffered in their language development. Rich said this is concerning because face-to-face interaction is drastically different than what a screen can offer.

“When you are talked to by a human being … face to face, you’re getting a whole lot more than just the sounds that are coming out of that box, whether it be television or a computer,” he said. “Face-to-face communication with another human being is much richer, much more protective and meaningful in the sense of human connection than even … talking on a telephone.”

Rich encouraged looking at the whole experience of communication and language and understanding that, while the sound coming from screens will be understood in later years as being a digital version of a person’s voice, in the early years, there isn’t that understanding. In other words, young children have a much more difficult time understanding that the sound they’re hearing belongs to an actual person.

"It's very easy for [screens] to become our default behavior, and that's the case with adults as well. ... We need to be conscious of our use of these devices and to respect ourselves, our time and our attention enough to place those things where they do us the best."

But, Rich cautioned, the solution to this phenomenon isn’t as simple as using screens less, though that can prove beneficial. It’s important to understand at what stages and ages children are able to decode the information in the world around them, he said.

In years past, there was an understanding that before the age of 2, no screen time was the best practice for a child’s development, but in the age of video calling, researchers have learned that young kids can respond to and understand people through a video chat, provided they’ve interacted with and heard that person’s voice in real life before. This suggests that screen time impacting language development isn’t so much about duration as it is about the type of content being consumed.

“It’s the quality of the interactivity,” Rich said. “It is with whom that interactivity occurs that matters.”

The duration of screen time matters more so when that screen time is replacing something else that could be far more valuable for development, he said. That is why it can be harmful to use screens as a distraction for kids in lieu of human interaction.

“The tendency to put a child in front of a screen instead of letting them cook with you when you’re trying to get a meal on the table is a relatively impoverished experience,” Rich said. “Our tendency to use screens to distract or baby-sit the child when we’re trying to get other things done is actually a detriment to their brain development.”

Replacing human interaction with screens can lead to negative behavior patterns later in life, often called a screen addiction, Rich said, though without the negative stigma traditionally attached to the word.

“Many of, if not all of, these interactive devices and applications are designed to draw kids in, engage them and keep engaging them because that’s how they make their money,” he said.

Fortunately, the part that appears to be addictive can be controlled if the parent helps the child learn that these are activities to be regulated. At first, the parent should limit the screen time, and over time, the parent helps the child learn to self-limit their own screen time. Rich said this self-limitation is something many adults would be keen to learn as well.

“It’s very easy for [screens] to become our default behavior, and that’s the case with adults as well,” he said. “We can’t even get into an elevator without looking at our smartphone. We need to be conscious of our use of these devices and to respect ourselves, our time and our attention enough to place those things where they do us the best.”

As much as screen time can be a detriment to a child’s development, Rich said there are activities that can positively impact a child’s development, such as talking, singing, reading, playing games and in general just interacting more with children.

“Ultimately, what they want from us more than anything else is our attention and our care, and so, how do we communicate that to them in ways that allow them to build their sense of themselves, their sense of their place in the world?” Rich said.

Actively engaging with a young child on a regular basis can help to increase their sense of self, which can help dispel shyness later in life, Rich said.

“It’s one thing for a child to understand language and even understand how to communicate with language,” he said. “It’s a whole other thing for them to understand that they have a voice and that that voice is valuable and needs to be heard and they have every right to be heard.”

Specifically, reading with kids in their early years can provide numerous benefits that aren’t just related to the sounds of whoever is reading the book. Rich said the interaction also provides affection and nurturing, two very important things for a child’s development.

“It moves from a very social interaction, which is very similar to Mommy just talking to me, into an understanding that in that book are codes for stories, for adventures, for imagination, and so, it gives value, it gives gravitas to that book and it makes you want to start to decode that for yourself,” he said.

Rich encourages reading to a child very early on incrementally, even before the child is able to read for themselves.           

Moving forward, Rich said his biggest concern is that screens are impoverished in the areas of human interaction, acting on one’s physical environment and problem-solving ability.

“While they try to present analogs of those, they’re relatively attenuative compared to real-life interaction with human beings or physical activity,” he said. “We have to think about this quite seriously and make conscious choices.”

Rich said it is imperative to make sure we are creating environments for children that will help build those neuron pathways rather than prune them away. He said one should compare the activities and look at whether they are giving up too much as far as the development of themselves and society as a whole and make choices that help, rather than hinder, their overall development.