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Our Kids and Technology: Are We Changing Their Brains?

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Hansa Bhargava, MD - Blogs
By Hansa D. Bhargava, MDBoard-certified pediatricianDecember 11, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

As a pediatrician, my job is to help guide parents on keeping their kids healthy. This includes everything from recommending vaccinations to guard against disease, to putting a baby on their back to sleep to prevent SIDS, to recommending seat belts to prevent accidental death from a car accident.

But what if we were starting to see a glimpse of potential hazards with something relatively new? A “something” that penetrates almost every waking moment of you and your child’s life? Should we sound the alarm bells?

Early results from a multi-center study funded by the National Institute of Health are showing that there are brain changes in 9-10 year olds who are using screens for more than 7 hours a day. We don’t know for sure if these structural effects are negative but, unfortunately, there are other studies that are already pointing to potential harm.

A study that looked at more than 900 toddlers aged 6 to 24 months found that language delays happened in kids who spent more time on screens. This isn’t surprising as kids learn how to talk by listening and conversing. In older kids, it seems that too much time on screens can impact their abilities to recognize emotions. And this study from UCLA found that if the screens were taken away for 5 days from preteens, it actually brought back their ability to understand emotions. We know as adults how important it is to be able to perceive what someone is feeling or thinking in personal and professional relationships. And then there are other effects: The blue light from screens affect melatonin and sleep, and social media can create teen anxiety and depression.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a physician who always wants to improve health and healthcare, I am truly a proponent of technology, when used the right way. Smart devices have enabled us to not only save time but also to stay in touch with people from around the world and even from the good old days.

I just found an old middle school friend from decades ago on a social media account — it was quite amazing! And then there are the incredible health innovations that devices have opened the door to: retinal scans for diabetic retinopathy, monitoring of blood sugars, heart rates, and oxygen levels, to even triggering EMS if you fall; every day there are more ways that technology can help us.

But, just like with cars, which have given us the capability to travel across the nation to our family and friends, we still need to have guardrails, especially with young growing minds. And honestly, would we just throw the car keys to our preteen or teen and say ‘have fun, see you later,’ with no driving lessons or understanding of rules and guardrails?

As a parent of twin preteens, I struggle with this myself. As working parents, we are constantly in a tug of war with time, and sometimes it seems we just don’t have enough to monitor our kids use of devices. It is not easy, but here’s the thing — with the science just beginning to show effects, such as language delays, sleep problems and emotional health issues on the developing brain, it is key that we hold the line. Here are some things that I suggest to parents, and that I do in my own home.

1. Set priorities. Screens should be last in how kids spend their time. The first priorities in our home are academics, exercise, sleep and family time. These are ALWAYS before screen time happens on any type of device. The AAP Family Media Use Plan can help you put those rules down with your kids.
2. Look in the mirror. Yes, I’m talking about us as parents. A recent study showed that half of parents were using their phone in the car, and a third were texting while driving their kids around. Obviously one problem is safety but the other is that kids DO what you do, not what you say you do. It’s important to follow the same rules that we set down for kids, ourselves.
3. Take every opportunity to talk and converse instead of looking at screens. Lately, everywhere we go, restaurants, in car pools, and in waiting rooms, all of us are staring at devices. We aren’t talking and looking at each other. Talking to each other builds relationships and can be the foundation and buffer for when kids go thru the turbulent teen years. Family time has been shown to help reduce risk of using drugs, having early sex, and depression — and it helps build connections and roots for kids. Hang out and chat with them often – it’s great for them, and your lifelong relationship with them.
4. Use the good side of innovations to help you. There are apps to gauge screen time, and recently Apple integrated a screen time tool onto smartphones.

The truth is we are living through a revolution of technology. It is rapidly changing and innovation is coming at us seemingly at the speed of light. It is hard for the scientific studies and laws to even keep up with this exponential change. So, as we wait for those guardrails to come down on the world around us, let’s continue to do what we’ve always done — hold the line for our kids and guide them to health and happiness, no matter how hard it sometimes is.

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About the Author
Hansa D. Bhargava, MD

Hansa Bhargava, MD, is Chief Medical Officer at Medscape Education and a board-certified pediatrician. She is the author of Building Happier Kids: Stress-busting Tools for Parents. With expertise in parenting, mental health, and pregnancy, she has helped develop the WebMD Baby App and WebMD Pregnancy App. A regular contributor to Forbes, she is frequently interviewed by major news outlets on issues of health and well-being in children. In addition to her work at Medscape Education, she has collaborated with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and is an elected executive member of the AAP Committee on Communications and Media.

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