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Children's Brains and the Invasion of Media

It seems that only a few years ago there were only three television stations, boom boxes were bigger than breadboxes, and only the wealthy could afford mobile phones. In today's reality, technology and media are a part of every moment of everyday life. Land lines are replaced by mobile devices that allow instant information to flow right into the palms of our hands. These mobile devices are even replacing the need for desktop and laptop computers. Name the game or movie that you want, and it is just one touch or two away. Music? No problem. Overwhelming? Well, if it is overwhelming to adults, imagine how overwhelming instant media is to the developing brains of children.

Ongoing research by the Kaiser Foundation found that the average eight year old is exposed to some form of media nearly fifty-six hours a week, with thirty-seven of those hours in actual media use. This does not include texting or talking on the phone, and it includes less than five hours spent on print media. For the first time in history, infants and toddlers spend multiple hours exposed to media that did not exist for their parents, or even for older siblings. This can eat into time that would have previously been spent engaging with parents, family members, and caregivers.

We live in a time when toddlers expect something to happen at the touch of a finger. At the tap of a finger or the sound of a voice, images on a screen will move, colors will morph, and a voice will respond. If the brain comes to expect a response, what happens when a child encounters print media that requires more than just the touch of a finger? Babies engage with and react to media -- screens in particular. The American Association of Pediatrics advises caution on the amount of time that young children are engaged in screen time since we do not know the long-term effects on the brain, especially as media evolve more rapidly. The brain comes to expect instant gratification, and that is not always the current reality.

Effective quality educational media for preschoolers is evidenced by forty years of research with Sesame Street – but not with infants and toddlers. How many hours a week do our children spend actively building relationships with peers, family members, or in the gathered community of Christ without the use of media? In Jesus' childhood, we can assume that he grew up in a culture where children were formed and educated through relationship and face-to-face communication. Do you believe our children deserve similar healthy relationships and communication?

A brain in development needs to discard excess neurons so that critical functions for development emerge strong and solid. The architecture of the developing brain is shaped by a child's environment of relationships from birth. In its research on brain development in the formative years, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has found that the brain needs interaction and experiences in order to build brain circuits. We cannot go back and rebuild or rewire a circuit that was not built properly. Those circuits in the brain that are used most frequently become the strongest, and those circuits that are not used become weaker or stop working. The overuse of media during early childhood can incorrectly focus the brain to see media as more important than forming trusting relationships.

Our brains shape and reshape themselves in ways that depend on what we use them for throughout our lives. Learning stories is an example of how experiences contribute to each person's unique pattern of brain development. The ability to connect with stories requires reciprocation that allows children to thrive in a way that supports their learning through experience and play. Their opportunity for these encounters happen when they engage fully with their senses of smell, touch, sight, hearing, and tasting, and with the God-given sense of wonder. Media deprives the brain of exercising these senses as a deep experience. Face-to-face contact helps children understand how to navigate challenging situations that life presents.

Like generations of parents, today's parents are usually preoccupied with a daily struggle to ensure that their children have food, clothing, and shelter, as well as love. Even with easier access to resources and information, the time needed to provide stimulating experiences that foster optimal brain development may not seem realistic. Infants and children need direct interaction with parents and caregivers, time with quality toys and manipulatives, and the opportunity to explore and experiment with their environment. These experiences offer the best opportunity to fully develop the neural connections and pathways that facilitate later learning.

Although genetics play a part in learning, children who are not provided opportunities that foster optimal brain development are at a significant intellectual and social disadvantage. They become mesmerized with the images on the screen rather than interacting with adults on sounds and pictures. Something different happens when an adult and child connect over a book rather than other forms of media.

Fortunately, the church is a place that can facilitate healthy development of children by supporting parents, providing quality faith formation opportunities, and providing a space for children to feel loved and nurtured. Building relationships through communication and language as the brain develops deepens relationship.

Talking to children and sharing our story is the most important thing that we can do to lay a strong foundation of faith for our children. Reading with infants and toddlers is an interactive event. As an adult reads and makes eye contact with a baby, the baby then reacts and responds to the inflection and tone of voice and touch. Media screens do not allow for this interaction. Infants and toddlers may make babbling sounds and react to the images and sounds on a screen, but there is no interaction. The opportunity to go deeper into the story, talk, and touch exists only in the arms of a nurturing caregiver.

Media is a part of our lives, in its simplest form of print to the next innovative form that will work its way into our culture tomorrow. Media connects us to our past, informs us of the present, and assists us in developing our lives in the future. Media is a tool that can be used for good or evil, but it is a tool controlled by human beings. Media connects us to people whom we might never encounter otherwise. Media enhances relationships by keeping us in touch when we must be apart. But media cannot replace communication that involves using all of the senses working together at once to build relationships.

Children in the formational stages of life are going to be formed, but it is up to us as to how that formation is going to happen. If a child is exposed to media fifty-six hours a week, this will most certainly have a bearing on the child's formation. In the baptismal covenant, we promise to "surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness… we are one in Christ Jesus." A community of love and forgiveness requires relationship that extends beyond texting and social networking. Children need our time, our touch, and our attention – the kind that is achieved "in person" – in order to develop spiritually and cognitively.

Reciprocation from the parents and caregivers encourages positive brain development, and the church can serve children by providing opportunities, resources, and experiences in a loving and nurturing environment, while supporting parents of young children in a media-driven world.

  • Children learn by observing our behavior, and it is important that adults make every effort to limit media use in favor of face-to-face communication with young children. When children see parents and caregivers model setting healthy boundaries, the opportunity to make their own healthy boundaries is enhanced.
  • Adults in the lives of children should make every effort to fully engage when communicating with children. Remember that media is a tool. Tools allow us to facilitate communication, but do not replace the human touch that children need to thrive. As we engage with children, we have the opportunity to share our faith stories using all of the senses and multiple intelligences. Relationships are built through these interactions, and the brain learns the meaning of love and trust.
  • Media is a rapidly changing industry; and it is imperative that the church, teachers, parents, and caregivers stay informed about the newest media developments. Because children are exposed to screen media so much earlier in life, they learn early how to maneuver around media. Because children's brains are able to process more information than adults' brains, children tend to understand more about how media works than the adults who are around them. This makes it even more important to stay informed about developments in media.
  • A child's community expands beyond the family to the church family and educational settings. These groups should find ways to work together to create safe environments for children to engage and learn.

Melanie Gordon is the Director of Children's Ministries for the Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

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