Screens can blur social development

Much has been written about how excessive screen time and social media engagement can harm teens. But what about babies who are given screens to calm them down? What could inadvertently using a digital pacifier do to slow their cognitive development?

Dr. Richard E. Cytowic poses and addresses these questions in a recent psychology today article titled “How screens interfere with the innate drive to socialize.”

Most of us have probably heard at some point how critical a baby’s first three months and then the first two years of life are for normal development. But we may not know exactly why this time frame is so important. The short answer is that this period encompasses a period of brain development unparalleled in the rest of our lives. Cytowic writes:

The visual cortex develops its forest of connections most rapidly during the first three months of life, and the postnatal brain grows in volume by one percent each day, tripling in size between 0 and 2 years of age. Early experience is particularly important, and there are critical time windows during which a specific type of input (eg, vision, hearing, touch) exerts its greatest effect on the developing brain. Patterns of synaptic connections are established through repeated sensory simulations and motor actions.

But let’s say you have a screaming child in his car seat at the grocery store. Nothing will calm her down. Until you give him a phone or tablet with simple games and pictures on it. As if by magic, she is silent, fascinated by the images and colors she sees.

No problem, right?

Well, that might not be a big deal if it’s occasional. But if it’s a pattern, Cytowic thinks it can slow down a child’s natural social development. Instead of looking at faces and reading them, instead of processing the environment around her and forging important neural pathways, she could be locked onto that colorful screen instead.

“Early screen exposure competes with normal development because the first year of life is the peak period for neuronal plasticity,” writes Cytowic. “…Early experience is particularly important, and there are critical time windows during which a specific type of input (eg, vision, hearing, touch) exerts its greatest effect on the developing brain. Patterns of synaptic connections are established through repeated sensory simulations and motor actions. But a reversal of already established connections can occur when expected stimulation is absent or blocked by a tablet pushed in front of a baby’s face.

My aim here is not to put parents to shame who have already discovered that a screen can very effectively attract the attention of a crying baby. Instead, it’s just about acknowledging that we’re still learning and discovering the ways our screens have a very big impact on our brains. This is true for babies, and it is also true for teenagers and adults.

Cytowic concludes his observations by focusing on infants, but he has something to say about the influence of too much screen time in all of our lives.

“Screens have made it difficult to be present, not only to others but to oneself,” he writes. “A dinner with a friend is marked by constant interruptions. We grab our phones and take them to the bathroom, to bed, everywhere. Their constant presence precludes the chance of spontaneous encounters, making it easier and more comfortable to give up screen attention than to make yourself available to others. In other words, the screens in our lives can impact our relationships with people In our lifes. You could say that our screens also stunt our own growth.

Joel C. Hicks