Technology is all around us. Children are taught at a young age to use devices for entertainment, education, boredom, and regulation. Opinions are divided on whether the use of iPads or cell phones is an acceptable form of reward or break-time for all children, especially the ones with developmental delays. Hand held devices, such as iPads and cell phones, make it especially challenging to regulate usage. In order to understand the issue these devices create, one must look at the effects they can have a child’s brain.
Children respond to video games in part because of the reward center in their brain. The receptors get hit with dopamine (a feel good neurotransmitter) every time they graduate to a new level or earn an achievement. Children with disabilities are especially likely to seek out this type of “reward”, because their natural dopamine/reward system can be sluggish. In other words, they need the increase in neural activity created by the video game in order to feel good. Although they look like they are concentrating when they are playing, it is not attention in the classical sense of the term because there’s a constant reward mechanism at work during play. Take it away, and you often have a melt-down. If the child cannot progress through the game and collect achievements, this also results in frustration and tantrums. He is dependent on the video game activity in order to feel good. The lack of dopamine during non-play time makes it harder to focus and function during other necessary activities. Some experts qualify such behavior as a sign of addiction.
Many children nowadays do not know how to self-regulate without technology. If they are bored, the first thing they reach for is an iPad or cell phone. We adults are the same: texting, or checking emails and the news. But an adult’s brain wiring is well established and a child’s is still developing.
Kids see us and they mimic us. Children learn through observations and experiences. Boredom teaches kids how to be resourceful, creative and self-sufficient. Kids with development delays need to make the brain connections necessary to thrive and progress through their milestones. Healthy brain wiring is built through social interactions, meeting challenges, physical movement, exploration, and trial and error.
In addition to the issues discussed above, multiple studies shed additional light on how electronic devices affect the brain:
- Early television viewing directly contributes to attentional deficits in children.
- Data shows that children’s executive functioning (ability to plan, analyze, strategize, and exert self-control) suffers with exposure to fast-paced visuals.
- Many children on the autism spectrum have an increased risk of seizures when viewing fast paced visuals, such as the ones in video games.
- Lights from screen devices have a negative impact on the sleep cycle, especially within 3 hours of bed time.
- Experts found that children with autism and ADHD are more likely to become obsessive and to show patterns of addiction when it comes to video games.
So what does that mean for our kiddos? Should parents ban handheld devices for their children, especially if they have developmental delays? Experts now agree that any child under the age of two should not have screen time. Disagreement does exist, however, when it comes to whether or not parents should use these hand-held devices as a reward or break-time tool for older kids. Since children on the spectrum or with ADHD can easily get addicted to video game playing, it seems wise to limit the use of smart phones or iPads as a reward system. Social interactions, trips to the park, or playing a two person non-technology related game can be used instead. It is true that many apps have been created to increase education and speech communication in children with learning and speech delays. These can be helpful if closely monitored and used in conjunction with a caregiver, a parent or teacher. However, they should not be used to replace social interaction—an already challenging task for many children with developmental delays.