Caution! Kids' Brains Are not Ready for Screens

Even the most savvy parents can be fooled into thinking that their child is more mature than he really is.
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Even the most savvy parents can be fooled into thinking that their child is more mature than he really is, especially when it comes to screen use. This is why understanding your child’s brain development is more important than ever, and will be a huge help as you navigate the digital ups and downs of your tween’s/teen’s digital life. The truth is that even though he or she is growing taller, your child’s brain is lagging behind.

Science tells us that it takes 25 years or longer for your child’s brain to reach full maturity. The frontal cortex (or executive function area) is the last part of the brain to fully develop. This is unfortunate because the frontal cortex is the area responsible for judgment, impulse control, critical thinking and decision-making. Teens naturally make mistakes but the tech-savvy parent knows that lapses in sound judgment and unbalanced risk taking are signs that those neuronal pathways are not fully developed. As that development takes place, your children must rely on you to guide them down the path.

Here are a few common thoughts from parents on brain development and their kids, and the truth about brain maturity.

My child is so smart and makes straight A’s!

Great! Those A’s may earn your child a spot on the dean’s list some day, but such achievement doesn’t speed up brain maturity. Impressed, and sometimes blinded, by their child’s academic talents, many parents incorrectly interpret that great report card as evidence of brain maturity. Academic achievement can mistakenly become a ticket to more adult privileges or a green light for more relaxed screen limits. Time mixed with life experiences are the only things that will mature the frontal cortex.

What does brain maturity have to do with video games and phones?

Our kids are not mentally equipped to handle the stress, resist the temptation, or exercise the judgment necessary to manage their screens on their own. Even though entertainment screens (video games and social media) appear harmless on the surface, they introduce anxiety into your child’s brain as they require constant good decision making, sound judgment, impulse control, focus and controlled risk taking.

Your children are drawn to their screens like moths to a flame, but their brains are not ready for the onslaught of stress that comes with them. Screen entertainment today is also filled with inappropriate content including porn, violence and internet “traps,” such as bullying and scams. Because their judgment centers are still “under construction,” your child is not able to set time limits, dismiss content, and easily choose activities away from screens that are important for healthy development. Instead they naturally choose low-effort, high-reward activities (which are found on the screen).

Letting your child/teen have full, unlimited access to the world of online games, smartphones, and social media is similar to giving your 10-year-old child the keys to the car and encouraging them to play on the interstate. This approach can have disastrous consequences and, at best, results in a lot of wasted time that your child could be spending on activities that promote his development.

Don’t I need to equip them to responsibly use screen devices?

Yes, you have to guide your children in most areas of their development, but with regard to screens, this doesn’t mean allowing full access to their devices and the internet with no supervision.

Training in this area always involves hands on help, clear leadership from parents, and more time than you think. First, give them a bit of supervised access to see how they do. As you observe how they use screens, be sure to also assess their development of social skills and life skills. If they still aren’t developmentally balanced enough for full unsupervised screen access, that’s OK. Their developing brains can’t be expected to handle a full workload of screen impulse management too soon.

Setting appropriate limits is one of the best tools for managing this development. This may mean delaying access to entertainment screens longer than your children like. Some parents even choose to put off their kids’ access to gaming and smartphones altogether until they are through middle school or even most of high school. Other parents find ways to be more structured by setting strict limits with the devices.

If you do choose to allow some entertainment screen usage, you have to realize that you also have several other things to put on your to-do list:

  • Know what games they are playing
  • Know their passwords
  • Follow them on all of their social media

Remember that you cannot equip them to use screens responsibly if you don’t know what they are doing with them. They eventually learn to use screens for social media and other forms entertainment; they don’t need 10,000 hours to do it!

The next time your son is binging on his video game or your daughter is posting inappropriate gossip on her social media, smile and remind your children that their frontal cortex is still under construction, and that they need to borrow yours. Then keep smiling as you collect their devices, give them a break and send them off to engage in real life non-tech activities.

Be confident that by using your frontal cortex while they are teens, you are laying a great foundation for their futures. One day their brains will catch up, and they will understand how to use screens responsibly. In the meantime, fully enjoy this “construction zone” we call childhood. Your window of opportunity to keep the construction project on track will go by fast.