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How screens impact our children's brains

Little boy playing on the floor
Credit: iStock.com

Dr Michael C. Nagel and Dr Rachael Sharman have co-authored Becoming Autistic. The book examines the neurological consequences of screen time on the developing brain and how they are increasingly being expressed as psychological and behavioural changes that resemble autism spectrum disorder (ASD)-like symptoms.

Handheld devices only became widely available in 2007, however researchers are beginning to see the impact of screen use on brain development with concerning consequences.

Dr Michael Nagel, Associate Professor Child/Adolescent Development and Learning at the University of the Sunshine Coast notes that identifying screens as the specific cause of a particular adverse event or effect is almost impossible.

“Morally, we can’t take children and do an experiment to see how much something harms them,” he says.

“Causation refers to how something may have directly impacted something else, while correlation is how some things might be related, which we see evidence of with high screen use and ASD-like symptoms.”

The human brain is not fully developed until after our 23rd birthday and is, literally, shaped by experiences.

When children are on screens, it’s time spent away from interacting in real time with real people, either other children or their adult carers.

They lose out on practising their communication and socialisation skills. Without these experiences, there is the potential for negative consequences.

“Our intent is to change parental behaviour and move away from using devices to essentially babysit children,” adds Dr Nagel.

“It’s important to recognise that the environment that children grow up in changes them for the rest of their lives.”

What’s happening now

Dr Nagel says that by the age of four, 95 per cent of Western children can competently use a mobile device. Most can before their second birthday.

Since 2015, different researchers have found that children who excessively use screens display ASD-like behaviour, also referred to as, Virtual Autism.

In 2020, Heffler and colleagues found that higher television and video exposure and less in-real-life play placed one-year-old children at greater risk of displaying ASD-like symptoms.

In 2021, researchers found the amount of time spent on a screen device had a significant association with deficits in social skill development and having ASD-like symptoms in four to six-year-olds.

“What we are seeing in children with excessive screen use is impaired language skills, an inability to express emotions facially, so a blank look on their face, and their attention towards human interaction wanes,” explains Dr Nagel.

He explains that these are some key indicators presented in children with ASD.

“If you displace real-life activities that build social learning and interpersonal skills with shallow yet entertaining screen-based dopamine hits, you are unlikely to develop the social sophistication required to navigate real life interactions,” he adds.

If we do nothing

There is no crystal ball to definitively know what our children’s future will look like, but Dr Nagel says that all the evidence points to our children growing up into adults who struggle to engage with other people.

“Over the last decade, we have seen an emerging generation of teenagers who are less tolerant of others, who are ‘crybullies’ (someone who engages in bullying while claiming to be the victim), who are very polarised (the belief of ‘it’s my way or no way’) and who have a diminished Theory of Mind, so unable to put themselves in other people’s shoes,” he explains.

“If you have years and years of onscreen use, with no counter-balance and there are structural changes to the brain, it could be that we are programming children to become teens and adults who are very polarised, who can’t put themselves into other people’s shoes and who struggle in social-emotional situations.

“There can be long-term negative social impacts, after all, at the end of the day to have a healthy society, people have to get along and they have to work with each other.”

What we are seeing in children with excessive screen use is impaired language skills, an inability to express emotions facially, so a blank look on their face, and their attention towards human interaction wanes.
Dr Michael Nagel

But they’ll be left behind

The counter argument is that technology will be essential in our children’s future and therefore, it needs to be part of their daily lives, including in schools, to ensure their future success.

A 2015 report by the OECD which examined students access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT) devices found that countries where students used devices moderately at school tended to have better learning outcomes than their peers who used devices rarely.

However, students who used devices, “very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and demographics”.

They also found, “no appreciable improvements in student achievement in reading, mathematics or science in the countries that had invested heavily in ICT for education”.

The conclusion was that it is far more beneficial to ensure every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading and mathematics to create more equal opportunities in a digital world than access to high-tech devices.

“Devices in day care centres, preschools or schools compound the total daily time children spend on screens, especially if they are on screens in the classroom during the day and then at home at night,” adds Dr Nagel.

“In terms of being left behind, or not knowing how to use technology, we really don’t have to worry about that.

“Technology is so user-friendly that studies have found that young children who were given a device with no experience and no instructions easily figured out how to use them within a relatively short period of time.”

What can parents do?

“Don’t feel guilty and don’t feel like you’ve damaged your child,” highlights Dr Nagel.

“There are things you can do to reverse any negative effects of excessive screen use, the earlier you make the changes the better.”

While the Australian 24-hour movement guidelines outline maximum daily hours for screen use by age, Dr Nagel says it isn’t as easy as not exceeding a set amount of time each day.

“Decades of child development research tells us that children need to spend real time with other children in real settings, more time in nature and spend time with real materials instead of virtual ones,” he says.

“If children are spending more time on screens than doing those activities, then parents need to shift the balance of time spent on devices to those activities.

“Children learn how to respond to other children by being with other children.

“They learn how to communicate by communicating in real life situations.

“The more time they spend on devices, the less time they are spending in real life experiences and the less opportunity they have for those experiences to shape their brain for their adult life.”

Dr Nagel also recommends that parents need to model the behaviour they want their children to do and put down the devices.

“What children see, children do,” he says.

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