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What That Digital Device Is Doing To Your Toddler's Mind

My three-year old is smarter than I was at her age, but is that a problem?

12/07/2017 1:49 PM AEST | Updated 12/07/2017 1:49 PM AEST
Liam Norris via Getty Images
"Will I become the mother of an internet-enhanced genius, or a smartphone-addled addict?"

My three-year-old daughter's face wavers in shifting patterns of light from the mini iPad held in her hands.

As she lies on the couch, her feet resting on my knees, I watch the small twin screens reflected in her lenses. Her bright-blue irises, as round and as valuable as holey dollars, flaring with each change of scene. Vivid and mercurial. The obsidian darkness of her tiny pupils growing and shrinking beneath.

Behind this diorama -- a juxtaposition between modern technology and ancient evolution -- something remarkable is occurring.

Each sight and sound will be converted by specialised receptor cells into nerve impulses. Travelling at speeds in excess of 100 metres per second, they will reach her cerebral cortex through a complex exchange of information through nerve cell synapses.

Since birth, her brain has more than tripled in volume as it constantly builds the new neural circuits needed to process all the new stimuli she is bombarded with. In the first few years of her life, her brain has formed approximately one million new neural connections every second.

On a microscopic level, it is possible to see a new neural connection forming. The gangly and torsional insect-like arm of a nerve cell -- called the axon -- wriggling toward another nerve cell. The axon arches its synapse toward the synapse of another nerve cell. The nerve cells conjoin, which, when viewed in slow motion, almost resembles two lovers kissing. A fraction of a heartbeat later they meld to form a seamless live circuit.

Growing up in a small Victorian country town, in the late '70s and early '80s, I was exposed to relatively simple environmental factors. Until I started school at the age of five, I stayed at home with my mother. She had her housework, I had my toys and picture books. Our black and white television was rarely watched; photos took a week to develop and letters were delivered to the mailbox. Upon starting Prep, I couldn't count beyond ten or even spell my own first name.

In comparison, my three-and-a-half year-old daughter knows all the letters of the alphabet, thanks to the ABC Kids app. She not only takes photographs on her digital camera but also turns them into simple slide shows. She sends texts (garbled, to be fair) to her cousin Jemma, takes videos on her iPad, can write her own name and do basic addition and subtraction.

So, is she smarter than I was at her age?

The simple answer is, yes, at least according to University of Otago Emeritus Professor James Flynn.

Washington DC-born Professor Flynn is a political scientist who became famous in the 1980s for his landmark discovery that, from the 1930s onwards, there has been substantial gains in IQ scores in many parts of the world. This improvement has continued up to the present day and has become known as the "Flynn Effect".

Professor Flynn spoke to me via a phone interview from his workplace in Dunedin, New Zealand:

"The brain is like a muscle and there is no doubt that it will respond to stimulation... To give you an illustration, in 1900 no one drove a car. In 1950 everyone drove a car. Between 1900 and 1950 the hippocampus grew in size because it's the map reading part of the brain. Today, thanks to the automated guidance system, the size of the hippocampus is going down because we are no longer doing the relevant exercise."

As early as 2008, researchers were discovering the beneficial effects of computer use on the brain. In a ground-breaking study that made headlines worldwide, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that internet use appears to boost brain function.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), they found that internet searching was associated with a more than two-fold increase in the activation of brain regions controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities when compared with the activation shown during a text reading only task.

The brain's response to video game stimulation has also shown promise. According to a Journal of Molecular Psychiatrypaper, evidence suggests that video game exposure induces structural brain plasticity and improves our performance on attention demanding and perceptual tasks. But as to whether these brain expansion effects leads to an improvement in complex life skills, such as problem solving and planning, remains open to debate.

Flynn explains:

"People think that any stimulation of the brain necessarily pays big dividends. But it's not clear if there's a transfer to more socially significant cognitive skills. The rise of IQ has limited effects when accompanied by the rise of ignorance."

In his soon-to-be published research paper, Flynn discusses how visual entertainment may actually distract people from important matters; such as understanding international politics or processing social criticism, and argues that cognitive progress, as measured by IQ tests, does not necessarily equate to wisdom.

"Many video programs are designed to deliver a thrill a minute. Yes, a three-year-old child's brain may be more developed today than it was at the same age 30 years ago. But if their attention span for being emotionally stimulated is reduced to one minute, then their mind is programmed to a rhythm that renders complex cognition alien to them."

Flynn believes that the concentration and focus required to read is losing the battle against the visual immediacy provided by the internet, and he warns this could potentially have serious long-term repercussions.

"We're in new territory. Studies are beginning to appear that seem to show that the less you read, the less value you set on empathising with other people. Computer technology seems to encourage people to retreat into their own private world."

Research scientist at Harvard University's Centre on Media and Child Health, Dr David Bickham, has spent more than 20 years exploring how media, as an environmental factor, can influence children's physical, mental and social development. When I spoke to him on the phone from Massachusetts, USA, it was nine pm local time and his two children, aged three and five, were asleep in bed.

"It's important to differentiate between general media use -- just exposure to devices like tablets -- with programs that are specifically designed for education. The evidence shows, pretty convincingly, that it's not so much the exposure to a device that makes the difference, but it's what you do with it, and the content you're exposed to. With television and touch screen technology, we're finding that if you create content that's designed to maximise the specific developmental stages and abilities of children, then you can really effectively teach content. So it's a good way to get children exposed to letters and numbers when they're at a young age."

I am uncomfortably aware that my daughter exceeds almost every health organisations' recommended maximum daily screen times for children. Though when I admitted this to Bickham, he was reassuring. Even with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recent reduction of recommended maximum screen time to just one hour a day, Bickham, as both a researcher and parent, believes restrictions like these have become a moot point.

"In a world where screen use and technology is so pervasive, time of use starts to be more difficult to measure and less important to make guidelines on. The more pertinent question to ask ourselves is what's most important developmentally for the kid, and is the kid getting that? And if they are, then I don't think some screen time is going to hurt."

Bickham does caution, however, that parents should use media mindfully, and it should never replace important parent-child interactions which are critical for a child's development.

"I have not seen anything that would convince me that devices are giving a child something which is stimulating them in a way beyond an activity like reading with their parent. We really are interpersonal beings and our information comes from our interactions with other people. The parent-child exchange that goes on with shared activities cannot be replicated artificially with a device."

Regardless of the debate surrounding the potential benefits or negatives effects screen time has on the brain, it is indisputable that computers, tablets and smartphones are here to stay.

According to the Internet Live Stats site there are currently more than 3.6 billion people with an internet connection, and the Statista company estimates there are 2.3 billion smartphone users in the world today.

Device detection organisation, DeviceAtlas, reports that 87 percent of smartphone users say they "always have their phone at their side, day and night." Finder.com states that nearly one in four Australians check their phones within 10 minutes of waking up (13 percent do so within one minute); and, startlingly, a joint US–Canadian study found that one in 10 people check their phone during sex.

Founder and CEO of online business ParkingMadeEasy.com.au, Daniel Battaglia, is a self-confessed "device addict", who epitomises today's tech-savvy population. As a millennial, Sydney-based Battaglia, 34, believes modern technology has definitely made him smarter.

"Having a connected device provides instant access to so much human knowledge that was never easily accessible before. It gives me the freedom to connect with people, learn new things, keep up-to-date with news and grow my business. And it's all done remotely, from anywhere."

Digital marketing professional, Liz Jammal, 30, is another millennial who constantly relies on technology to stay up-to-date with trends, research and stay across developments in her industry. Despite being aware of recommendations to regularly "switch off", she has no intention of reducing her screen time.

"Even when I'm not working, I'm on my phone reading business blogs and articles for personal development," she told me. "I love what I do and I don't see it as an issue."

Not everyone is so effusive. Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president Professor, Malcolm Hopwood, says while there is no doubt that devices have been a wonderful aid to society, there exists a subset of people who have become overly overdependent on them.

"We are seeing concerns where devices can blur the boundaries between people's work life and their personal life. It's really important that people get sufficient time away from work. Personal devices can make that difficult."

So, did this conflicting advice mean I was going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius? Or a smartphone-addled addict? Or, would such an artificial distinction soon not exist anymore?

These thoughts worry me as I stand up and touch my daughter gently on the cheek.

"It's bedtime," I say.

Tears and tantrums follow, as they do virtually every night. Even when I promise to read her 'The Gruffalo', 'The Gruffalo's Child' and 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt'.

It's time for Plan B.

As my daughter pouts, wails and jumps up and down, I head over to the wire rack that we keep by the elevator doorway.

The lower shelves are lined with shoes and sandals; the top my keys and purse. But tonight there's something else, something I nearly accidentally threw away...

My daughter's tears stop abruptly when she sees the envelope in my hand. It's plastered with animal stickers and her name and address are written on the front in big-pink glitter letters.

"What's that, Mummy?"

"It's a card," I say. "It's for you."

I give her the envelope and watch as her fingernails frantically pry open the flap. She squeals in delight when she tugs out the card. It's a cardboard cut-out of a chicken, complete with yellow feathers and big-black googly eyes.

"Grandma made it," I say.

My daughter grins and shakes the hand-crafted card so hard that the chicken's pupils rattle.

"Read it!" she says.

I hold the card, feeling the soft-downy feathers, the bumps of dried PVC glue, the red-wooden beak.

"Dear Amity," I begin.

My daughter giggles, and I smile. Happy that, at least for now, there are still some things that screen time, no matter how smart the device, just can't beat.

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