Can your pre-schooler truly learn from media? ( Part 2)
Updated: Aug 22
Most parents would have heard of guidelines surrounding screen time that have been advised by American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as well as World Health Organisation (WHO). These guidelines are referenced all over social media as well as news articles. However, these guidelines set a high standard that a lot of young working parents find it difficult to comply. As a result, these young parents feel judged and are stressed whenever the topic of screen time comes up.
The young parents in today’s context are under enormous pressures from all fronts and are constantly multitasking. With needing to constantly juggle their children, chores and their work, many would think that parents turn to media as an electronic babysitter for their children. This is not true (Rideout, 2007) because the parents reasoned the educational potential from these media as priority (Zimmermen, 2007). Modern parents want to be able to do what is right by the child and educate them despite their busy schedules.
These parents relate media’s education value as they grew up on a staple TV diet and have positive experience learning from media. It would be confusing to them why AAP and WHO state such a strong stance against screen time. Why should loving parents withhold something they feel is good from their child especially when more than 50% of parents believed that television is education (29%) or relaxing (23%) for the child. (Zimmermen, 2007)
As we have seen from the previous post, educational videos/apps are not beneficial for learning in infants and young children, contrary to marketing claims. This is so especially if children are less than 30 months old and are unable to translate the information from the digital world to the real world. Despite such findings, many parents tend to overestimate how much the child learns, especially if parents themselves have favourable attitudes towards viewing of such educational videos. In reality, research has shown that excessive screen time has been associated with various negative outcomes, including cognitive delays and poorer academic performance.
In this article, we go behind-the-scenes to glimpse at how screen time impacts a child's bodily function and his nervous system. With that in mind, we will discuss if screen time is educational and relaxing for the child as what many parents believed. We will also explore how Self-Reg can do to help the situation.
The Shanker MethodTM Self-Reg Diagram. Retrieved from: https://self
on 7th of February 2021
Recognising the hidden stressors inside a child when they are engaged with screen time?
Video/apps are specifically designed to capture and hold children’s attention. It is also clear that infants and toddlers are very attracted to at least some baby videos. Studies have found that 12- to 18-month-old children pay attention for up to 70% of the entire video (Barr et al.,2006). This is a drastic change from 30 years ago, where Anderson and Levin (1976) reported that 12-month-olds attended to Sesame Street clips less than 20% of the time. This rapt attention to the new videos designed specifically for infants will mean that children will have keep still, stiffen their little bodies, and hold themselves in a static position for prolonged periods of time. (Reflect on how much energy you expend when you had to stay focused and hold the same body posture for working in front of the computer for 20 minutes). Both actions, holding a static posture and sustaining focused attention on the screen, use up the child’s energy while keeping her excited and euphoric. Subsequently, the child gradually enters into a state where her real energy is depleted and yet she is on an emotional high; represented as a Low Energy/High Tension state in the Thayer Matrix (see illustration below). Being in a state of heightened stress, the child is primed for a tantrum or meltdown. Ironically, this would usually coincide with the suggestion to turn off the TV.
In addition, too much exposure to the blue light on screen not only signals that it is bright daylight outside, but can also inhibit the secretion of the sleep hormone, melatonin. This results in reduced quality sleep at night or could even cause sleep deprivation in severe cases, causing the child to wake up feeling tired and grumpy, starting the day with the wrong note. She would be less motivated to socialise, empathise, play or to engage with learning throughout the day because these social, prosocial and cognitive tasks are energy-demanding and this child’s energy tank is half filled. As such, these children’s interactions with others may be fleeting, their abilities to read momentary facial expression reduced, their attention on the everyday task (such as table-top work, games or meals) reduced and their ability to hold emotional stress reduced- priming them for an emotional outburst. (Please see chart for summary)
These stressors from different domains start pinging off each other, with a multiplying effect. For example, the shorter their ability to stay in a meaningful conversation, the shorter will be their attention for table-top learning task: and vice versa. All 5 domains (Biological, Emotional, Social, Cognition, Prosocial) bounce off each other causing the child to be in a state of heightened arousal. The child’s threshold for going into a ‘fight-or-flight’ response drops and he/she is primed to charge or flee.
As children are resilient, they may try to down-regulate their heightened arousal state in a way they know: by increasing their own physical activity levels; They may jump from a height, or by running and crashing into the sofa. Unfortunately, this increased activity level makes it harder for them to stay still and pay focused attention to their task at hand. (i.e., they may run off abruptly when they are having a conversation with you). In their attempts to regulate, they unconsciously reduce their sporadic attention even further. In the longer term, they may resemble children with overwhelming exuberance and little attention for any everyday task.
Reframing misbehaviours as stress behaviours
These children are now in a stressed state; they are more irritable, more active, more fleeting with their attention, and have a lower threshold for going into a tantrum. They are gripped by an insidious stress– the craving to watch even more TV. It is important for parents to recognise that these are stress behaviour that has resulted from TV watching and not misbehaviours. This important distinction will redirect our next course of action. To help navigate these children out of stress rather than manage their behaviour through ignoring, punishing or reinforcing good behaviours through TV watching. Often times, well-meaning parents who are unable to make this distinction give in to their requests so that they can take a breather from their overwhelming physical activity and persistent requests for more screen time.
What happens with repeated exposures?
When children watch videos that are specially designed to hold their attention, their brains’ rewards system respond to the incoming visual stimulation. The Ventral Striatum releases opioids and the children get a surge of energy and a feeling of euphoria. The effects of natural opioids resemble drugs like codeine or morphine. This very pleasant feeling seems to soothe the irritability and the tantrums in the children at first.
However, scientist also found another interconnected branch to the opioid system within the neural reward system; the dopamine system. With the viewing of videos that are engineered to raise viewership, the more opioids the child gets from viewing each episode, the more dopamine will drive him/her to continue watching these videos. With repeated exposures to TV watching, the effects of the opioid begin to diminish, but the dopamine levels do not. The heightened dopamine continues to drive the child’s TV watching behaviour and is the source of craving. Over time, the brain begins to get habituated and more (TV time) is needed to get the same surge of energy and reduction of the stress. The dopamine-driving behaviour forms an endless craving loop and is a source of stress. Eventually, these neurotransmitter in the brain dictates our behaviour, making it impossible for the child to reach for that switch to turn the TV off. (Please see the diagram attached)
The combined opioid-dopermine reward system that drives behaviour
The child who is “hooked” is caught by desires that cannot be satisfied; for it is the need for dopamine that drives the urge, (ironically) rendering TV viewing secondary. Such an outcome may be wonderful for the profit margins of various media enterprises, but it is detrimental for the child’s wellbeing (not to mention that of mom and dad). High levels of dopamine are associated with all sorts of negative consequences: e.g., poor concentration; anxiety and agitation; aggression and depression; excessive pleasure-seeking; digestive problems and nausea.
Parents, who are not aware of the effects of these neurotransmitter, may mistakenly think that TV watching may be beneficial to the child in terms of education and relaxation. Unknown to them, the seemingly innocent viewing of the videos is the cause energy depletion, tension, addiction and the whole host of social emotional issues that were mentioned.
How can parents help their children reduce these stressors?
Parents can play an important role in reducing the stress these children experience when they follow the five practices of Self-Reg in the Shanker Method (Please see the diagram below). Self-regulation refers to the manner in which an individual deals with stress, in all its many forms, and then recovers from the energy expended. These restorative activities help us manage our energy through sleep, play and exercise. In addition to these activities, children should be taught to recognise signs of stress and to develop personal strategies to promote restoration and resilience.
The five practices of the Shanker MethodTM. Retrieved from:
Reg_for_Elementary_Teachers.pdf on 7th of February 2021.
First of all, we have to start at the root of the problem - reduce screen time. The myth that children potentially learn from educational TV programme has been debunked and children have more to gain from not watching TV. With reduced screen time and exposure to blue light, a child is also able to stay in bed for longer periods of time at night. Not only can she sleep more, she sleeps deeper and better. Good quality sleep helps a child increase his sensory threshold- being able to tolerate the various sensory inputs within the day. With improved thresholds, the child has better tolerance and is better able to cope with desires for media. The child is also able to have greater capacity to attend, stay on task and to learn.
It is helpful to increase a child’s physical activities, such as through repetitive actions such as wiping and moping to help mom and dad with housework, for a child to down-regulate. (This is also a good way to reduce parents’ stress around having to complete chores in the house). When a child moves, their sense of proprioception (or body awareness) receives input from her muscles and joints. These inputs are important because it is the only sense that helps calm and improve focus very quickly. In addition, with exercise, the body releases endorphins, nature’s pain-reducers and mood-boosters to help children return to calm and happy.
Taking walks in a place with nature can help to soothe a child’s neural alarm system- the limbic alarm. This alarm has been kindled in response to the stress that the child experience with the reduced sleep and negative emotions like (anger, fear & anxiety). This alarm, which primes the kid to fightback, can also be soothed when parents take a leisurely stroll and calming chatting (co regulating) with the child. Having been through such experiences, the child can then learn how it feels to be calm. With practice, a calming conversation may be all it takes to soothe the child’s kindled neural alarm in the long run.
With lowering the child’s stress levels and turning off the limbic alarm, the child’s brain shifts its processing emphasis towards the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC supports the thinking, planning and other cognitive executive functions. With this switch from survival brain to learning brain, the child can now attend better and learn better through interactions and experiences around her. The calmness that the child feels rubs off on the parents themselves; Calm begets calm. Together the dyad feels good together; They are in sync with each other and is in a state of truly relating and engaging with each other.
Help the child through play- that being the child’s natural main preoccupation. The family should expose the child to various pretend play ideas with figurines/vehicles, dressing-up, and art/crafts. The family should also spend quality time interacting together, so that the child truly learns problem solving, language and empathy through pretend play or just chatting about everyday life. Such back and-forth interaction have been shown to have considerable influence over their children’s language and brain development. Unlike passively sitting in front of a screen, increased language exposure through interactive dialogue leads to neural processing and significantly increased verbal skill (Romeo et al., 2018). (Please see chart for summary)
How can parents teach their children to be more aware of their stress level?
After having had some experience of feeling and knowing what ‘calm’ feels like, the child should be taught to be more aware of what makes her stressed: is it due to bright lights, loud sounds, things that didn’t go their way, etc. Along the same line of thought, parents can teach the child to recognise when she is stressed by using her body as a guide (e.g., how loud they are, how fast they move, how tense their muscles are, how awake/tired they feel).
How can parents help their children develop personal strategies to promote restoration and resilience?
It is also helpful for parents to reflect on how effective any given strategy was in restoring energy and reducing tension for that child since every individual will feel varying amounts of benefit from any given strategy. Depending on what have worked with this child, parents can suggest using that particular strategy to help her return to calm when the need arises. (E.g., going into a tent, taking a bath, taking a walk, or going to sleep, etc.) Over time, the child could feel more confident in coming up with other personalised strategies that can help her restore energy and reduce tension, returning her back to the centre of the Thayer Matrix ( see illustration below). It is through these highly-tailored adaptive strategies that she can learn to form healthy habits surrounding the use of media.
Parents, who are not aware of the effects of these neurotransmitter, may mistakenly think that TV watching may be beneficial to the child in terms of education and relaxation. Unknown to them, the seemingly innocent viewing of the videos is the cause of energy depletion, reduced attention, addiction and the whole host of social emotional issues.
The practices of Self-reg can help break the cycle. Firstly, it is important for parents to understand the distinction between stress behaviour and misbehaviour so that the stress experienced by the child can be recognised and reduced with the parents’ help. As every child is different, care must be taken to ensure that the strategies used on the child is tailored to her individual difference. Then, when the opportunity arises, help the child to recognize what it feels like to be calm, what it feels like to becoming overstressed. With that knowledge, the child will be empowered to use individualised strategies when she feels overwhelmed to help her restore energy, reduced tension and get back to calm. (A case study below illustrates how these steps can apply to scenario).
It is likely that the child will resist attempts to change her routine because it is new and may be frightening to the child. So, when you are attempting to change your child’s behaviour, expect resistance and sometimes, the behaviour will get worse before it gets better. It is an uphill battle, but the freedom from the grip of the stress cycle is worth it. I wish you all the best!
CASE STUDY: SUZIE, A 5 YEAR OLD GIRL, HAS BEEN WORKING ON NUMBER BONDS ON AN IPAD APP FOR ABOUT AN HOUR. 5 HOURS LATER, WHILE TRAVELLING TO GRANDMA’S PLACE, SHE REPORTED THAT SHE COULD NOT FALL INTO DEEP SLEEP EARLIER DURING NAP TIME. SHE SAYS THAT THE MUSIC IN THE MATH APP KEEPS PLAYING IN HER HEAD. MOTHER HAD NOTICED THAT SUZIE’S MOVEMENTS ARE FAST AND SHE IS LOUDER THAN USUAL. SHE IS ALSO IRRITABLE, CONSTANTLY SNAPPING AT HER SIBLING DURING THE CAR RIDE. INSTEAD OF CORRECTING HER BEHAVIOUR, SUZIE’S MOTHER RECOGNISED THAT SHE IS STRESSED AND IT IS LIKELY DUE TO (MORE THAN HER USUAL DOSE OF) SCREEN TIME. HER BRAIN COULD NOT SHUT DOWN WHEN SHE RESTED. SHE WASN’T ABLE TO RESTORE HER DEPLETED ENERGY THROUGH NAP AND CONTINUED TO BE IN A HEIGHTENED AROUSAL STATE. MOTHER PUTS ON SOME SOFT PEACEFUL MUSIC TO HELP SOOTHE THE MOOD IN THE CAR, AND WITH A SOFT AND CALM VOICE, INVITES SUZIE TO THINK ABOUT WHAT SHE DID BEFORE NAP ( MATH APP AND LUNCH). MOTHER THEN LOVINGLY POINTS OUT THAT HER OBSERVATION OF SUZIE’S HIGH AROUSAL STATE AS WELL AS HER IRRITABILITY ARE SIGNS OF STRESS THAT ARE LINKED TO HER SCREEN TIME. NOW, SUZIE IS CALM FROM THE CO-REGULATING CONVERSATION WITH MOM AS WELL AS THE CALMING MUSIC. MOTHER ASKED HER TO RECOGNIZE WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE CALM. MOTHER TELLS SUZIE THAT SHE HAS THE ABILITY TO AVOID SUCH SITUATION IF SHE CAN THINK OF STRATEGIES TO COPE. SUZIE SAYS THAT SHE WILL USE A TIMER TO AVOID SPENDING TOO MUCH TIME ON THE IPAD. MOTHER ADDS THAT SUZIE CAN TRY TO PLAY WITH MANIPULATIVES OR TO DRAW WHEN EXPLORING NUMBER BONDS. KNOWING SUZIE’S SENSITIVITY TO BLUE LIGHT, MOTHER ALSO REMINDED SUZIE THAT SHE HAS TO REFRAIN FROM IPAD 2 HOURS BEFORE NAP TIME. MOTHER AGREES THAT THESE ARE GOOD STRATEGIES TO START WHILE WE THEY FIGURE OUT WHICH INDIVIDUALISED STRATEGIES SUZIE CAN TAP ON IN THE FUTURE TO RESTORE ENERGY, REDUCE TENSION AND GET BACK TO CALM.
Anderson, D. R., & Levin, S. R. (1976). Young children’s attention to “Sesame Street.” Child Development, 47, 806-811.
Barr, R., & Wyss, N. (2008). Reenactment of televised content by 2-year olds: toddlers use language learned from television to solve a difficult imitation problem. Infant behavior & development, 31(4), 696–703. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2008.04.006
MEHRIT Centre. (n.d.). Self-Reg for Elementary Teachers. Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://self-reg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Infosheets_Self-Reg_for_Elementary_Teachers.pdf
Rideout, V. (2007). Parents, children, and media. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Romeo, R. R., Leonard, J. A., Robinson, S. T., West, M. R., Mackey, A. P., Rowe, M. L., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2018). Beyond the 30-Million-Word Gap: Children’s Conversational Exposure Is Associated With Language-Related Brain Function. Psychological Science, 29(5), 700–710.
Shanker, S., & MEHRIT Centre. (2016). What is Self-Reg? Retrieved October 14, 2020, from https://self-reg.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Infographic_What_is_Self_Reg.pdf
Zimmerman FJ, Christakis DA, Meltzoff AN. Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(5):473–479. doi:10.1001/archpedi.161.5.473