Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Technology and learning in toddlers

Technology and learning in toddlers

“The most important period of life is not the age of university studies but the  period from birth to the age six” Maria Montessori

98% of the brain develops in the first five years. Parents and educators can create brain compatible environments to support this growth. The brain needs stimulation, complimented with brain compatible practices. Routines, rituals, stimulating toys, more choices, child led activities, open ended questions, logic games, toys, outdoor activities and more are many of the brain compatible practices to nurture brain development. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics states infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010).
Screens have become a babysitter or the third parent for many parents and families, but this result is definitely worrisome because it means that at the crucial brain development age our children are actually being exposed to unhealthy habits that lead to weak neural structures. What we are dealing with is a different kind of ‘brain drain’. We are draining the brain before it is built so the foundation of life skills, learning, memory, health, language, social skills are all affected and this leads to fractured childhood and children who will grow up to be weak in all areas and aspects required for life and learning.

According to Maria Montessori there are 6 sensitive periods during the early years which are crucial to the all round development of children, in neuro science circles this is what is called the critical period:

  1. Sensitivity to learning through the senses- sensory perception
  2. Sensitivity to language
  3. Sensitivity to order
  4. Sensitivity to small objects- small detail
  5. Sensitivity to walking- movement
  6. Sensitivity to the social aspects of life

I will now detail how each of these critical periods is affected due to exposure to screens and technology.

When very small children get hooked on tablets and smartphones, says Dr. Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine, they can unintentionally cause permanent damage to their still-developing brains. Too much screen time too soon, he says, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.” Between birth and age three, for example, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us.  (sensitivity to learning through sensory perception)
Learning through story telling v/s screen based story telling- Technology exposure too early can impact many cognitive skills in children. For example when a screen is used to tell stories to young toddlers then it feeds images, words, picutures and motion all at the same time, so something like ready- made thinking and imagination. But when an adult tells a story to a toddler the toddler brain would have to process the language, imagine the visuals, and exert some effort to follow the story, no ready-made thinking so this would exercise their cognitive muscles. With screen stories their cognitive muscles remain weak. (sensitivity to small objects- sensitivity to details )
Language development is crucial in toddlers and language is about having a conversation, language development cannot be a one-way process. Due to too much technology exposure, children are not spending enough time with other humans and instead are spending time with machines. Their language development would naturally suffer because of lack of ‘serve and return’ interactions, screens are a one way traffic so naturally children who grow up with screens as companions lack the necessary social skills to take part in conversations, they learn that if you don’t like it- change it with a swipe or a remote! (sensitivity to language)
Children are being pacified with screens so we are bonding them to machines instead of emotions! They naturally become materialistic because it is the screens that calmed them, cajoled them and not the humans. So human touch, empathy are all being reduced. If a child is calmed when upset with a screen then attachment is to the inanimate object and not a human being, as the child grows older the attachment will transfer to other things like drugs instead of seeking human help.
When young babies and children are exposed to screen voices, screen instructions more than real life voices and conversations, they naturally get attached and give more importance to screen world, a living example of it is the recent ‘blue whale’ addiction. It has its roots in childhood screen addiction. Today the screens and the world within are controlling these teenagers.
The brain’s pre frontal cortex or the thinking brain  is the area responsible for  understanding  social interactions. This part of the brain is the seat of empathy, non-verbal communication, logic, and understanding about the world.  And this part of the brain develops during toddler years, and is dependent on human interactions. So if  toddlers spends all the time with technology instead of playing, talking, interacting with humans then this part of the brain , so essential for future relationships , will be dulled, possibly for good. (sensitivity to social interactions)
Have you noticed how young toddlers who are exposed to screens, use the swipe motion even when given a book? well, it may look ‘aww, so cute’ to adults but it is a grave sign of addiction to technology and an ‘internalization’ which leads to ‘instant gratification’- that all my actions will have an immediate effect/response.   This quick response that they get from screens also gives the a quick dose of ‘dopamine’ a brain chemical that is associated with feelings of pleasure- thus the addiction to technology. But in real life when they don’t get ‘quick results’ or ‘cant change things as they want’ or ‘stop looking at what they don’t want to’ then this lack of ‘instant results’ and ‘pleasure chemical’ can lead to many disorders.

 Many parents want to take the screens away from the toddlers but when they do, it results in complete mayhem as toddler breaks into uncontrollable tantrums! And parents who are unable to calm them down, commit the grave error of giving them the screen just to pacify them. It’s important to understand why this happens- two parts of the brain are involved when your child is using a screen:
1. the visual system and 2. The vestibular system
so the visual system has to work overtime to take in all the stimuli that come from technology, in kids the visual system is still at the developing stage and this makes the brain work in ‘overdrive’ to keep up with the oncoming images, sounds etc. this means the brain is working in a hyper mode. 
Now the visual system is closely linked to the vestibular system, have you noticed how a toddler using a screen, can see nothing else and is completely focused on the screen?  The vestibular system also has a significant impact on mood.  So your hyper focused visual system locked up the vestibular system and your child was in a ‘no mood’ zone.
Now when you take away the screen, the visual system that was on hyperactive mode goes from ‘100 to 0’ in a spilt second and because it is released now it releases the vestibular system, so your child goes from ‘no mood’ to ‘too much emotion’ and all hell breaks loose. Your child does not know what to do with so much hyper focus and nothing to focus on and thus the huge tantrum! Because the brain is still in the hyper mode and has nothing to process your child will go berserk trying to calm a hyper brain!
The solution according to experts is to reset the  brain.  Get your child moving. Jump, swing, and run around. The vestibular system is in charge of motion so these kind of   linear acceleration activities will reset the vestibular system and calm the entire body.
Learning in toddlers can be damaged by technology but sadly we cannot keep technology away from our toddlers as they are born in a ‘tech bubble’, so I urge parents and teachers to do the following so that learning and brain growth are not affected in toddlers:
1.     Do not give hand held screens to children below the age of 2 years.  Because the young brain is developing at a fast rate during these years and you are actually ‘killing’ neurons with screen exposure.  If you are unable to do it then put the screen on airplane mode so that the harmful microwaves emanating from them don’t harm your child. Limit to two 15 minute slots per day
2.     Ensure that the content is non-violent and pro social. Maximum discipline issues happen when kids watch violent or abusive content, and since children learn by imitation they mimic these in their behavior.
3.     Be with your child during the screen viewing time and chat with your child during the show. This is because face to face conversations are a must in the early years to build the foundation of social skills, television is a one way process and so children don’t learn important social skills like waiting for the other person to speak.
4.     Absolutely no screen time 3 hours before bedtime.  The excessive blue light emanating from screens affects melatonin production thus reducing sleep in young babies and toddlers and making them cranky and unfocussed all the time. Sleep disruption also affects growth hormone.
5.     Avoid any kind of technology during meal time, meal time is a sensory process that starts with the taste in the mouth and the process of seeing different colours on the plate and feeling the same in the mouth. When children are hooked on a screen during meal time they lose out on the sensory experience that aids the release of digestive juices and may chew less or eat more leading to digestive and obesity issues.
6.     After playing with handheld screens ensure that your child is engaged in some sort of high physical activity like jumping, skipping etc. so that the extremely high focus reached by the brain during screen time is clamed down to avoid tantrums and a feeling of suddenly being bereft of stimulation. Ensure that babies and toddlers get at least 3 hours of physical play /outdoors play time.
7.     Children are great imitators and if they see you addicted to screens then they will follow in your footsteps. When interacting with your child do not have screens as the third party! Can you ask a child to keep away from sugar while you are merrily chomping on a bar of chocolate?
8.     Never use screens as a pacifier to calm them during a tantrum or to make them eat or listen to you or as a baby sitter as this makes them lose out on human emotional bonds and makes them connect to materialistic satisfaction of their emotions.
9.     The first 3 to 6 years are critical for brain development and brain requires hands-on stimuli, face-to-face conversations, and opportunities to think, explore and listen to new words. Ensure that you include story telling, rhymes, non-battery toys, and outdoor time in your child’s daily routine. Check out activities given on

The author, Dr. Swati Popat Vats is the President of Early Childhood Association (  and the Director of Podar Jumbo Kids Preschools and Daycares. She is also a parenting mentor and is the parenting expert on a unique parenting initiative called Born Smart,

Dr.Swati Popat Vats

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Fake news...keeping children safe from it.

Fake news?

All of us at some time have been taken in by fake news! Fake forwards, fake news, fake brands, and fake people!

But our teenagers and young children need our support and guidance to understand how to differentiate fake news from real news, fake ads from real facts. Because it is a world that works on fake facts to sell, create communities and create fear.

I recently conducted a workshop for teenagers and their parents on how to verify if any news that they are reading about or have received is fake or real.  

It all started with a teenager excitedly telling his friends that the Prime Minister follows him on twitter! His friends had two reactions, one group were in awe of him, ‘Wow! He is followed by the Prime Minister’, another group chanted, ‘faketa hai’ (he is fibbing). And soon the two groups were arguing and almost came to blows.

The school decided to hold a workshop for children and their parents after a lot of fake news about schools closed, airports closed, bandh declared etc. during the recent riots in Mumbai. Parents and teachers all fell prey to fake forwards doing their rounds on WhatsApp.

In my workshop with the group of children and parents, I helped them understand how to differentiate between fake and real news by using a verification process. So where all do we encounter or use a verification process? On your phone, on your email, on your social media accounts, there are passwords. What is aadhar card, pan card, passport? These are verification documents. They help only the real user avail of the services so that fake users cannot get access.

So we must always verify any news in three steps:
1.     Who did I get the news from? Is a trusted core group member? So trusted core group members are your parents, siblings, best friends, and teachers.
2.     How did they get the news? From where? Was it a forward?
3.     Why do I believe it is true? Can I check it on other sources or with other people?

In the example of the child who thought that our Prime Minister was following him on Twitter, we asked the child what makes you believe it is the Prime minister? The child said the profile has his photo, his name. Now, lets ‘verify’ further, how many followers does this profile have? Is there any other profile of our Prime Minister? Check that. How many followers? Which has more? Ask an adult or compare both profiles, which one do you think would be the real one? This is a verification process that starts by asking relevant questions. Go to the source before believing the fake news.

Fake news is floated to create mischief, to create unrest, tension, stress. It is for us to ensure that we are smart to question before we forward or believe. In parents and educator whats app groups a common fake news is about a predator with his photo and a message that says “This man kidnaps from schools, watch out for him.” And such messages always have in bold letters- FORWARD TO AS MANY AS POSSIBLE. Or there will be news about someone needing an organ or blood and it would be going viral pan India. Out of our fear or need to help we respond to these only to realize that they were fake news. And then like the proverbial story of the ‘Boy who cried Wolf’, when we do receive a real cry for help we ignore thinking of it as clutter and fake news.

I then showed them photos of branded goods, watches, bags, jackets, phones, with their logos tweaked a wee bit. Now identify which is the original and which is the fake. This activity helped them understand how to scrutinize and verify before accepting something as real.

At this point a young teenage girl stood up and said, “Ma’am, there is a news channel that does a viral sach”, to verify all WhatsApp news. The girl’s comment meant that she and the group have now understood that news received as a forward or not from a trusted source can be fake and needs a verification process before believing the same.

Our young children and adolescents use the net; social media and can get taken in by fake profiles, fake news, and fake people. It is for us to ensure that we teach them how to differentiate between the real and the fake and when to differentiate. It is important for us and our young children to understand that everything that is printed, in a photo or in a video need not be real or correct. Remember Photoshop?

And this is what is most difficult for children to understand, they assume that anything that comes on TV, News, on Google search is real, but well times have changed and with it have sadly changed the moral values of many sites, channels and ads.

Teach verification to children, teach it to yourself too, and don’t forward anything till you are not sure. Don’t be in a hurry to forward, or accept friends on social media. Children learn by imitation so give them good habits to imitate.

I have taken this a step further and included it for our early years program, now each class has a password, a word that is chosen every day by the class and if you want to enter the class then you have to give the password to enter. A fun and early starting point for children to grow up understanding about verification.

Let us create a real world for our children.

Dr.Swati Popat Vats