Digital Dementia: Prevent It by Reading with Your Kids

read with your kids for-reading-813666_960_720The jury is far from in on this but there is a growing body of evidence indicating that spending too much time with electronic devices in the formative years can, quite literally, interfere with brain development in some areas. The theory is controversial but from what I know of child development, there may be some truth in it. We will not know the final verdict until the current generation becomes adults. These articles from The New York Times, Psychology Today, and Science Daily, explain a bit about it.

The term “digital dementia” was coined by South Korean researchers when doctors reported seeing young patients with memory and cognitive problems, conditions more commonly linked to brain injuries. Others noted issues including aggression, moodiness, restlessness, strange cravings, emotional control and relationships.

Just as with all animals, there are certain key windows, coming at predictable stages in growth, when children are most likely to pick up particular skill sets. If these skills are not learned during these crucial windows, the person will struggle with them for the rest of their lives. A case in point: it is common knowledge that those who did not learn to read until adulthood have great difficulty with it.

It is held that the first five years of learning in children are largely kinetically stimulated. That is to say that brain development happens primarily in concert with movement of the body. This applies not only to learning how the body works, but also to other areas of development, including bonding, spacial skills, and even language. Watch infants and young children. If left to their own devices they are in constant motion … unless they are interacting with an electronic device.

I cringe when I see phones, tablets, hand held games and TVs used to keep young children occupied. I see infants no more than a few months old being given so-called educational games on screen. Sometimes parents do this to keep the child passive so they can go about their own activities. Others believe they are helping their child’s learning because of the hype that these programs are educational.

Let me be clear. Such devices are not evil, in and of themselves. It is the amount of time spent with them in lieu of physical activities or human interaction that creates the problem. I have been in homes, in restaurants and in many public places where I see kids using devices for long periods, completely absorbed, while parents ignore them.

In recent years it has become increasingly possible for kids to have stories read to them via a device. Interactive games “talk” to them and require specific responses. There is no space for creativity or the give and take of “real” human interaction.

When I read a story with my grandson, it becomes a spontaneous interaction where we can stop and talk about what we see, point at the pictures and discuss them, share our reactions, can touch each other physically – in other words, we bond. This is not possible with an electronic device. Those times of closeness are so crucial to both emotional and relationship development. Now we are learning that they also impact the development of the brain in many more ways.

The studies I read suggest that screen time (of any kind) should be withheld until age two and restricted to less than two hours thereafter until age ten. Others go even further.

But for me, the bottom line is – read WITH your kids. Have them on your lap or sitting next to you. Let them interrupt to talk about the story. Don’t let devices take over this wonderful intimate activity. It will benefit their brains and your relationship. When they grow up they’ll thank you for it. And they may be smarter and more balanced, too.

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

37 thoughts on “Digital Dementia: Prevent It by Reading with Your Kids”

  1. Nicely done: satire with a good message at the end.

    I wasn’t even dead sure if it was satire or not until you wrote “Let me be clear. Such devices are evil, in and of themselves.” Its always a sign of a good piece if you’re not QUITE sure whether you’re reading the Onion or the Wall Street Journal. 😉

    1. Actually, Kevin, that was a typo. It should read “Such devices are not evil in and of themselves”. It’s not satire. But, as I said, the final results are not out yet and it is controversial.
      Thanks for weighing in.

      1. Oh! Sorry – I thought it was satire. Lines like “Others noted issues including aggression, moodiness, restlessness, strange cravings, emotional control and relationships” were especially satirical. Since, y’know, those symptoms DO show up in almost every child who plays with them devil electronic devices. They’re symptoms of this horrible condition called “adolescence”. 😉

        I think it’s almost dead certain that back in the 15th century people said the same thing about those damned printing presses – newfangled things – how were kids supposed to learn properly if they didn’t have to hand copy books for their professors?

        The evidence is not controversial at all. Using a device – ANY device – DOES INDEED change our brains. Our neurology is flexible. If I play violin every day for a year, my brain pattern will be different after that practice. The use of a device changes the patterns of our brains, and does impact behavior as well. We KNOW that to be true.

        Cars impact our brain. Books impact our brain. Pens were a huge impact. Screens are another.

        Those changes have lasting impacts. We know this. It’s not controversial.

        What IS controversial is the idea that these changes are a negative thing, rather than a natural adaptation to the environment.

        My personal theory (drifting away from science now) is that a digital native who was sent back in time to 1950 would have a horrible time of it – because all the things they were used to would be gone. They’d have about as hard a time adapting as the people born in 1950 have trouble adapting to 2016. And it is a HUGE issue for most people in their 60s to adapt to the idea of everything going digital, because the neural connections they built as a child were so very different.

        But by the same token, the child who is not given any exposure to tablets and computers in that key 0-5 age range today will be at a *significant* disadvantage when they’re older, because they won’t have built those early adaptations to key technology. (Again, my theory, but that one is largely supported by the literature).

        All that said – read to your kids anyway. 😉 No computer connection can replace the personal touch of spending time with another human being. Whether the kids read on a tablet, a rock, or an old paper book matters little. But spending time with people who care about them matters a lot. That, too, is not controverisial.

        1. Much of what you say makes sense, but I have to take exception to the idea that kids not exposed before age five will be at a disadvantage. There are windows growing up which seem to be optimal for specific kinds of learning. While there are no magic numbers I believe kids exposed after age five will catch up very quickly because they will be ‘ready’.

        2. Taking exception to ageist remark, here. Talk about born in the 50s? I was born in the 40’s, and I have absolutely no trouble with computers, the Internet, website design, etc. etc. 🙂

  2. Excellent article, Yvonne. I hope many parents pay heed. Screens have now taken over the role that TV held for decades, electronic babysitters. Kids definitely need to move, play, and interact. Good stuff.

  3. I told my kids stories, and them wrote them down. (They have demanded this because they liked the stories and now read them to their own kids.) I did this because reading the kind of thing they wanted me to read would have tipped me over the edge into insanity and dementia would have been the certain outcome. So much children’s literature these day is about thump and bash, killing things and doing devious and dangerous stunts, all for no purpose but the adulation of the protagonist.
    What happened to the romance of adventure? To the encouragement of decent social relationships, the deeds of kindness and generosity, and the pure fun that existed in children’s literature when I was a child three quarters of a century ago? It’s all given way to explosives and destruction, killing aliens, stealing cars and other things with violence at their core. And people wonder why society has become so volatile and cruel?
    I suppose by reading stories to your kids instead of letting them find them for themselves does let parents exercise some small element of influence, but where to find the stories? So, since the future looks dire, perhaps it’s better to welcome dementia and not worry any more. Your kids will do what they want regardless. 🙁

    1. Our kids, and out grandson, loved the library. There are wonderful books there that only a little guidance will help them find. It’s wonderful that you provided your own stories for your kids. But the scary stuff is by no means new. Both Hans Christian Anderson and Grimm wrote some pretty weird and violent stuff. But those were aimed at children a bit older. Most books for kids under five are actually pretty harmless – and often actually boring.

  4. Unfortunately, this isn’t restricted to just parents; I see this in the schools I’m in as well. Many elementary school teachers use headphones and tablets as a means of classroom management. I have no problem with limited use of these devices, but if you add 2-4 hours of screen time at school with 2-4 hours of screen time at home, it’s definitely more than kids need.

    1. I’m so glad you said this. So many teachers are of the opinion that these are ‘necessary’ or kids won’t be able to ‘compete’ or keep up. From what I have observed kids absorb it so quickly there is not need for concern that lack of exposure might put them at a disadvantage.

      1. There’s a huge difference between basic familiarity and deep understanding. The stark differences in ability to adapt to technology between a 10 year old who grew up with a tablet in hand from age 1 and a 25 year old who had casual computer use in school a few times a week from middle school on is enormous and immediately apparent when the two are compared.

        That doesn’t mean the person without early exposure can’t catch up – they absolutely can. But what seems to happen is that tech familiarity is similar to language in that learning done prior to age 5 or 6 is easiest, and then grows more and more difficult as age increases. We know that a person who has learned several languages by age 6 will usually have a much easier time learning new languages for the rest of her life.

        What *seems* to be happening is something similar with digital familiarity. So much like teaching your kids a second language early on can give them a permanent leg up, early fluency in computer and tablet use seems to be doing the same.

        1. Your comment about learning several languages is well taken. I know kids can learn up to four at a time without a problem, some even more. I learned two simultaneously and never knew I was doing it, as did my sister. But learning a spoken language and using electronic devices use different skills and, as with the window for reading, have optimal windows during which they are picked up more quickly. They can be learned outside those windows, to a point, but are best learned at the optimal stages of development. At this time, because the research is so young, we really don’t know when the optimal window is for electronics. What we do know is that kids younger then five learn primarily through body movement – that is there needs to be a large kinetic component to their days. When that is replaced by device time they may suffer lapses in brain development. That is the main point of this post.

      2. And often it goes beyond just exposure and familiarity. Sometimes it’s, “Here, take this tablet because it’ll keep you quiet and in your seat, making it easier for me to control my classroom.” Same as what parents do when out with their kids.

        This sends a very bad message to kids, mainly that wanting to move and talk is inappropriate, and that your problems can be fixed with a screen, rather than creativity.

        1. Don’t want to take things out of context, but “wanting to move and talk is inappropriate” sounds a whole lot like a schoolroom or library.
          This reminds me that reading a book is a completely sedentary experience. The mental activity of reading and using an iPad can be equally stimulating.
          Of course, sending your kid off to read a book, watch TV, or play a video game is no substitute for family interaction.

  5. This is quite important! After reading your links, especially the one for Psychology Today with the brain scans, this issue should be shared far and wide. I’d certainly never heard of it. As you say, it’s not definitive, but the evidence is compelling. Thank you for presenting this to us, Yvonne.

    1. It is fairy new, Candace. And most of the educational ‘experts’ still want to push use of devices on school, fearing kids will be at a disadvantage without them.

      Personally, I grew up without TV. Not a fair comparison, perhaps, but I think that having to create my own diversions made me a more creative and critical thinker.

  6. If a children’s eBook contains color photos, interactive capabilities, and sound, then the stimulus could enhance a child’s learning experience. Parents could still sit and read with their youngsters.

    On the plus side, kids could give up those heavy backpacks they carry to school in favor of a lightweight device that contains every book they need. On the minus side, the devices could be more easily lost or stolen.

    Such is the future! It will be interesting to see how it all plays out…

    1. Certainly having a device for school purposes to replace heavy packs will be a good thing, as long as those devices have the same stuff on them as books have in them. It’s the constant attachment to devices to the exclusion of kinetic movement and social interaction that worries me. Even interactive games have only a set number of options. Reading or playing with your young child opens limitless possibilities and stimulates creative thinking.

  7. There are really two different issues here. The first one, I think, is a general lack of familial connection, which I saw all the time when I worked with families in therapy. We can blame electronics now, but the issue is an old one. Families become disconnected for all sorts of reasons: cell phones, iPads, TVs, alcohol, drugs, exhaustion, overwork, poor communication skills, poor anger management skills, depression, stress, poverty….The list goes on and on. It’s absolutely a huge problem, but it existed long before electronic devices came into play.

    The second issue is, of course, the role we allow electronic devices to play in our lives. It’s absolutely concerning to see babies, toddlers, and children connected to electronic devises in lieu of personal interactions. But in all honesty, I have to say I’m far more likely (this was certainly true professionally, and remains true personally) to see parents spending family time glued to phones, laptops, tablets, etc., than I am children. That was always a HUGE concern of mine when working with troubled families. I’ll step aside now before climbing on my soapbox. 🙂

    1. Good points, Melinda. The difference I see with families in the past and now, though, is that in the past, even when parents did not interact much with kids, they did interact with each other, be it siblings or friends. They were still less isolated and less disconnected, overall.

      And, yes, sadly, adults have bought into the whole electronic disconnect. Unfortunately, this has spread well beyond the poor and disadvantaged families you have dealt with, which makes the problem even bigger. There is a mistaken notion, generally, that it does no harm.

  8. A couple of others have already mentioned the main thing I was going to say: electronic devices are the latest in a long string of non-human babysitters. When I was a kid in the ’60s, it was TV. In the ’90s, when my kids were little, parents were supposed to restrict TV time, lest their kids become slack-jawed automatons — but there were newfangled “interactive” toys like Teddy Ruxpin, an electronic (and not at all cuddly) bear who would read stories to your child. Today, we’ve cut out the middlebear and handed the kid a tablet computer. 😉

    All of these are *tools* — devices that let Mom and/or Dad get a little adult time in. Smart parents make use of them sparingly — while still reading stories with their kids, or telling them stories, or encouraging them to make up their own stories. But you’re right, Yvonne; nothing replaces cuddle time with your child — no matter how you manage to get the kid to sit still for it. 🙂

    1. Exactly, Lynne. My concern is that parents are of the belief that these devices are educational and good for the kids. They can be, but not before a certain age.

      As I said to E.D. Martin, “many teachers are of the opinion that these are ‘necessary’ or kids won’t be able to ‘compete’ or keep up. From what I have observed kids absorb it so quickly there is not need for concern that lack of exposure might put them at a disadvantage.” This is poppycock.

  9. This is a great discussion. When I was a teacher of developmentally disabled preschoolers, story time was the highlight of the day for both me and the kids. I could plan activities to teach certain concepts but the “spontaneous learning” that occurred during story time, I believe, stuck with the children better. Plus language skills and interaction between the kids were enhanced through the discussion.

    Electronic gizmos are great. It is the future and children need to be familiar with them, but there has to be a balance. Interaction between parent/teacher/child and child with other children is crucial to social skills, learning, and bonding, but the younger generation has to exposed to technology as well. I think the balance can be maintained as long as the child has the exposure to other kids and adults and not just left to play with the computer by him/her self as a baby-sitter. That’s my two-cents worth.

  10. Various reports have come out over the past few years highlighting the fact kids now spend more time on digital devices than watching TV. It’s an unprecedented phenomenon, in part because the Internet (and much of its content) is unregulated the way the FCC here in the U.S. regulates commercial television. I saw a cartoon several years ago displaying a woman telling her young son that he was watching too much TV. The kid’s head was shaped like a TV screen. I’m trying to find it; searching (where else?) on the Internet. Today, though, the shape might be an I-phone.

    Regardless, kids just aren’t reading books nearly as much as even a generation ago. I guess I developed a love for reading because my parents ensured I learned to read at an early age. I was reading by age 2. When a few close friends had babies in the past, I’d usually buy them a book of nursery rhymes with the intent to get the kid to start reading as soon as possible. There’s now an effort in many large cities to fill pediatricians’ offices with as many books as possible; since children spend so much time in those places.

    1. Thank you. The biggest concern is not only ipads and phones, but even early video games and so-called teaching devices. We live in a scary world and have very little idea of the effects. This new research is cutting edge and frightening.

  11. There is no question that there are certain stages of development where certain skills are learned more easily, especially language. Learning a language and learning the language of computers (or the language of music, for that matter) is still learning a language, and any one of these expands the number of nerve connections in the brain. In other words, they all will make the child smarter.
    The difference with learning a second language, of course is that you learn that through interaction with people, which has so many other benefits.
    And be careful of the “excess computer use creates misfits” theory. This is NOT necessarily a causative relationship. It is also true that children who are already misfits tend to lean on computers too heavily as compensation, the causative spiral that creates geeks. Just like families with poor connectivity spend more time with electronics. We must be careful not to put the blame completely on the devices.
    Great post! Look at the comments!

    1. Please note that my post is aimed at the very early years. I am not suggesting misfits result from later learning and use of devices. Learning a spoken language is quite different fro a computer language. I would seriously hesitate to suggest that it develops the same areas in the brain. In any event, overuse, especially in the early years, is creating warning signs, as shown in the articles I mention, that we need to beware of our tendency to treat all these devices as harmless or even beneficial. Only time will tell. But why take chances?

    2. The devices are seldom the problem except that they can become mesmerising and distract the younger mind from other activities like using its imagination, developing interactive skills and relationships. That’s where parenting comes in. Devices are all too often used to distract children from the parents’ failings, just a books once were. Reading is good, but story telling, as an interactive process, has far more value in the earlier years – say up to ten.

  12. Thanks for tackling an interesting subject here.

    I used to work for a publication called Education Technology News, and there was always the debate over technology. A lot of educators wanted “technology” in the schools to keep kids up to date. But, there were a growing number of people who said, you know, kids nowadays don’t need to be taught “technology.” They need to be taught critical thinking, problem solving, and other complex cognitive skills. There’s enough tech floating around that it’s second nature to kids. One guy I interviewed was like, “Give me a kid who can think and I can teach him the tech he needs in half an hour.” So, shoving kids in front of technology just because it’s technology is rarely helpful. It’s easy because the technology pacifies/easily entertains the kids, but by itself, it’s not going to really help them develop, and like so many thing, will hinder if used in excess.

    1. This matches what I see, AJ. Just plunking kids in front of a computer or tablet an hour a day is fairly useless. The complex thinking skills you’re referring to are the key, I think.

      That said, not all kids have equal access. I made sure my kids have had computers and tablets since they were old enough to read, pretty much. The nine year old twins are more fluent in the use of such than most adults. 😉 But not all kids have that level of access.

      There’s a growing divide in our society between those people who have basic familiarity with technology – enough to get by in day to day life – and those who understand the full uses of that technology. Some people still think their phones are just for talking to people (in voice or text), for example – rather than seeing them as a virtual Library of Alexandria, stored in their pocket. 😉

      Rote memorization has become a much less useful skill. Knowing the capitols of the states by heart (we did that in third grade when I was a kid) is a waste of time. Knowing how to find that information – and verify that your source is a good one – is the new skill of value. Learning how to get good information, know it from bad information, and synthesize that data into new ideas are the core skills of the 21st century.

      But as so many have commented above, handing a kid a tablet to watch their cartoons on is no different from sitting them down in front of a TV set was in the 1980s. That’s not helping them learn to use technology; that’s using the tablet as an electronic babysitter.

      1. I agree, Kevin. The key phrase, though, in your response was “when they were old enough to read”. My post was aimed at kids under five. They have no need of devices at all. Unlimited access may actually harm their natural brain development in key areas. It’s the timing of introducing them and keeping the balance after we do that is so important.

      2. Not all rote learning is wasted, Kevin. It often provides the foundation from which to reach out and find links and more information. Doing without it would be like having a body with no bones, so please don’t write it off completely. Relying on too much technology could land you in real trouble when the power goes off or your broadband signal fails. You need something to fall back on. Solid knowledge is that foundation and safety net.
        Developing the imagination and thinking processes is also vitally important, as these are the tools that let you reach out and create new ideas and links. Reading widely fosters both of these and gives depth to them. So much that is accessed only through the internet risks being very superficial, as it removes the need to dig deeper for answers.

  13. I would prefer to see children learn to read, write and count fluently, to devour books for interest sand as sources of information long before introducing them to technology. Computers should be largely avoided until they are about seven or eight years old. They will then become an adjunct to finding information, but the child will have developed a basis of reasoning with which to take advantage of that resource.
    Get the core skills in place first.

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