Is Technology Rewiring Your Baby’s Brain?


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It's a rule nearly every parent breaks: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 2 have no exposure to screens. That guideline was hard enough to follow when it applied to background TV and baby videos. Now that very young children are reaching for smartphones and tablets, most parents hand them over sooner or later.

Some experts argue that these screens are different because they are interactive. When a young child pokes the screen, something exciting happens. There's no question that this kind of cause and effect is mesmerizing, but is it good for little brains? The honest answer is no one knows.

The AAP argues that even if there's no evidence that screen time is bad for baby brains, there's also no evidence that it does anything to promote healthy growth. Until it's clear that screen time is good for babies and toddlers, parents should limit and thoughtfully supervise access to technology. Since you can't see what's happening in your baby's brain, you'll need other indicators to be sure development is on track. Here some questions worth asking:

• Is your child excited to play with you? Experts agree that a deep connection with parents is crucial during the first two years of life. Having face-to-face fun with your baby sets up a lifelong assumption that interacting with people is rewarding for its own sake.

• Do people talk to your child — a lot? Research shows that prerecorded words don't make much of an impression on babies. Language needs to be tailored to the child, responsive both to what she is doing and her emotions.

• Does your child enjoy 3-D play? Babies and toddlers figure out the world by picking things up, chewing on them, poking, throwing, rolling and stacking them. It gives your child the basis for concepts like round and flat, fuzzy and smooth. A touch screen may reference these ideas but it takes real life experience to fix them firmly in the brain.

• Can your child detach from the screen? Some parents report that little ones become fixated on smartphones and tablets, whining for them when they could be doing other things and melting down when parents take them away. According to Michael Rich, director of Boston's Center on Media and Child Health, this occurs because the visual stimuli typical of apps gives children a regular squirt of dopamine, a brain chemical that creates sensations of pleasure. Too much can create cravings babies can't resist.

• Is your child able to settle down for quiet time and sleeping? Being able to settle and sleep peacefully is a lifelong skill, and most parents intuitively help young children calm down by gentle rocking, singing and stroking. Research indicates that the light emitted by screens stimulates brain waves in ways that interfere with sleep, so keep screen time out of baby's bedtime routine.

• Can you focus on your child? No matter what you say, young children will mimic what you do. If you're tethered to your devices — checking email during diaper changes, texting during playtime, talking on the phone during walks with your baby — your behavior imprints on your child. More important, your distraction keeps you from playing what Uri Bronfenbrenner, co-founder of Head Start, called "ping pong" with your child. As Bronfenbrenner famously put it, healthy development occurs "through the process of progressively more complex exchange between a child and somebody else — especially somebody who's crazy about that child."

If you can answer "yes" to these questions, your baby's brain is getting what it needs, and handing over the smartphone to secure a moment of quiet isn't any more harmful than offering a cookie for the same reason. Neither is it likely to undermine healthy development for your baby, unless you turn it into a habit.


Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids including one with special needs. She has been writing a column about technology for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict.

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