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Babies and screens? Recommendations based on science and not on trends.

February 26, 2024
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10 minutes

But why so many fears about screens among the youngest, especially about the development of their brain and their cognitive skills? Besides, are all screens the same? What does scientific research tell us?

Perhaps one of the options, before answering these questions is to understand the origin of this fear, why so much apprehension around the toddler brain and screens? What really happens in the first years of life in the brains of our young children? By better understanding how our brain develops and what it needs to have a stable foundation for its learning, maybe we can better adapt our rules and especially those of our digital uses!

1. Language learning for young children

1.1. Why are the first years of our children's lives so valuable in cognitive development?

One thing is certain: research in recent years has made considerable progress on the cognitive development of children and in particular in very young children. Thanks to the advance of experimental methods and techniques (brain imaging, experimental psychology, etc.) we have never accumulated so much knowledge about babies and children! In particular on one of the most important and most early learnings in our human species: language. This ability, so specific to human beings, is in fact established in first months of life, or even before birth And knows Its time window the most favorable for this period! Language proficiency has a crucial role in our daily lives, whether it is to interact with others, communicate, think or even reason, it is at the heart of a large number of our cognitive functions! Moreover, a good command of oral language is also a springboard for the success of our school learning, and even of our social and professional success. Indeed, the more stable the learning of oral language is, the easier it will be to enter into school learning, especially when starting to read, etc. So the establishment and mastery of the mother tongue is a crucial element and of paramount importance for our young children! So yes, these early childhood periods are very valuable for learning, because fundamental skills are developed and without certain ingredients, they cannot have stable foundations.

1.2. How does this learning take place and what are the right ingredients that facilitate acquisition?

The latest scientific research seems to show us that, not only is the earlier a child is exposed to his mother tongue, but also the more he is exposed to a rich and varied linguistic environment, the more proficient his or her mother tongue (s) will be at a higher level! For example, children who live in families where large quantities of words are produced, where there is a great diversity and richness of vocabulary, or a high level of complexity in sentences, see Case of bilingualism, their vocabulary level is higher, their syntax more complex, etc. But for a good language acquisition it's not just a rich sound environment, it's also largely dependent on the quality of social interactions! For example, talking with your child, sharing your attention on an object, singing songs together etc. Of numerous studies have shown that without social interactions, especially for language learning, a child will learn little, if at all. Thus, he will not master his language well and this will even affect the good development of his brain and brain areas dedicated to the treatment of language. Indeed, in interactions between babies and parents, attention (direction of gaze), active engagement (curiosity, exploration), feedback (discussion), repetition, emotional security (positive emotions) are present. And these elements are crucial for language learning and more generally for other types of learning.

All this research therefore tends to show us that, yes, the first years are very important! Language learning is at the heart of the cognitive development of babies and that a rich linguistic environment as well as complex social interactions determine the good development of language and therefore cognitive development of children. So it's not that irrational to worry so much about the development of our young children and to ban items that could potentially be harmful to them!

2. No screens until what age?

2.1. What if we went back a bit to the question of screens and the famous “Nothing before 2 years! ”?

In fact, the famous rule around screens and children, with the famous “no screens before 2 years” was published in 1999 by the Academy of American Pediatrics (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1999). These recommendations are mainly based on studies of young children passively watching videos on screens, especially television or DVDs. Indeed, a child who is exposed to a screen, of this type, is not exposed to a natural social interaction, which contains lots of necessary and crucial clues for quality learning! A child exposed to a screen such as television is particularly passive, there is little shared attention (someone who will direct their attention to something specific), little engagement (little action to support their exploration) and thus little feedback on actions (by a third party with precise explanations). However, without these committed mechanisms, as we have seen, we learn little, if at all. And at an age where the first few months or even years are critical for the brain development and of the development of its cognitive abilities, this context of passivity induced by television is in fact not recommended at all!

However, in the screen landscape, especially in recent years, things have changed a lot! Screens where children are completely passive, such as television, are no longer the only ones! Interactive screens such as smartphones or tablets have entered the market, and their uses, whether among adults or children, have exploded! If we take The numbers, between 2011 and 2014, the percentage of children under the age of two in the United States who use interactive screens such as smartphones increased from 10 to 38%! Now, we have just learned how important a stimulating and interactive environment is, especially in the early years of life, but if we think about it carefully, interactive screens could lead to a very different situation with children. Instead of passively looking at this screen, they can have active control of what is happening on it, and that detail can make all the difference!

2.2. What if screens weren't so bad for our young children?

At the moment we do not yet know exactly to what extent interactive screens could have an impact on the development of our very young children. However, the data from recent studies suggests that interactive screens would not be as much of a problem as we might have thought at first! Taking these results into account, The recommendations screens have precisely been modified (AAP Council on Communications and Media, 2016), and groups of researchers have even sent one letter Open to explain their concern about how we can perceive screens so negatively for our children without even having research data that would support this hypothesis. So if we are wondering whether screens are good or bad for our children, make our decisions taking into account the current state of research on this subject and reformulate our questions and rules of use!

So, the first questions to ask yourself are, what exactly is happening on and around the screen while a child is watching and/or using it? Is he in a position conducive to learning or not at all?

3. New technologies and young children

3.1. What is happening on the screen?

New screen supports, such as tablets and smartphones, as well as formats like video chat, offer completely different functionalities compared to traditional screen supports such as television or DVDs. The main characteristic is that they are interactive: while a television program takes place without the child controlling anything, video chat allows real-time action and the application on a tablet/smartphone reacts when the child touches the screen. This difference is crucial to start learning, but why?

Let's look at video chat programs first. Some studies Recent show that children learn words from someone interacting with them on screen just as well as from someone interacting with them in real life. Moreover, without even knowing these results, parents already had this intuition that video chat was different from other media! In fact, a survey showed that the majority of parents aged 6-24 allowed frequent use of video chat, without really worrying too much.

But what about interactive media without “being human”, such as smartphone applications? You would think that since it is very different from natural interaction and everything is virtual, no learning effects could be found! Is that really the case?

Of studies Recent show us that even if virtual agents appear on the screen, children can learn effectively, in particular of New words ! Moreover, these effects are present especially if these agents react to the direction of the child's gaze, for example by turning to him, or if they press on a specific place on the tablet for the program to progress! On the other hand, Others studies show that in situations where they are going to be passive, especially when they can press anywhere, without any action being linked to it, no learning effects are detected.

Thus, these studies show us that if screens are interactive then they can be quite promising educational supports! By activating the mechanisms of learning, they can have positive effects, so we are far from “never having screens before 2 years”. However, it should still be noted that Some researchingS have observed that these learning effects on interactive screens seem to be higher in children aged 2 and over. Moreover, these positive effects are also not found in All the conditions: Some features of interactive screen-based applications can interfere with and hinder learning, in particular by reducing the natural interaction with people who are with children when using these screens. But exactly, how do you mix the two for a successful combo?

3.2. What if by combining technological power and the power of human relationships, we got the best for learning?

As you can see, one of the ways to increase the success of learning through interactive media is to involve parents during the viewing! Broad differences are Recovered between a young child interacting alone with the screen versus accompanied by someone! Indeed, adults who watch media with children can improve the viewing experience through three channels: they can focus children's attention on relevant aspects of the screen, provide cognitive support by asking questions, and establishing relationships with the look and the smile! Remember, these are essential elements for children's learning! These studies therefore reveal that active co-viewing with a parent (or other) is very beneficial for the child (and also the parents)! En being active with the child and with the content of the interactive screen that goes upgrade Definitely apprenticeship! Very often we think of reading books as a shared activity, but not so much with screens, where we more often leave young children alone on them. But that shouldn't be the case, especially for younger people! This is a very important point to remember when using screens with toddlers!

3.3. What are the important messages for screens and toddlers?

As we see around us every day, interactive screens are increasingly present in our environment and also in our children. We have seen that, compared to traditional formats (TV, DVD), interactive screens can be promising formats for improving early language learning for example! Researchers are actively working to better understand the long-term effects of interactive screen exposure on language and cognitive development more broadly. In particular on the conditions that could be the most beneficial for learning depending on the nature of it!

But in the meantime, we can already take new measures based on all this latest research.

4. Screens and young children: what new recommendations?

* Do not ban screens but manage the time of use well for specific goals!

Quality screen time in and of itself isn't harmful, it's only the case if the kids aren't doing any other activities! Vary the activities with the use of new technologies but not only by doing sports, music or any other activity that will develop their cognitive skills and enrich them!

* Interact with the kids as much as you can!

Learning from interactive screens is enhanced by the quality of the environment! Ask questions, bounce back on actions to enrich their vocabulary, arouse their curiosity, encourage the exploration of a scene, an image or an object!

* Be vigilant about the content that your young children use!

It is always difficult to judge an application if it is really “educational”, but to try to select well: look at how much the content can enrich the vocabulary of children (and also yours at the same time) and avoid those with distracting and superfluous content!

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