My three-year-old daughter’s face wavers in shifting patterns of light from the mini iPad held in her hands. As she lies on the couch, with her feet resting on my knees, I watch small twin screens reflected in her eyes, her bright blue irises flaring with each change of scene, the obsidian darkness of her tiny pupils growing and shrinking beneath.

Behind this seemingly calm and peaceful moment, something remarkable is occurring in her brain. Each sight and sound will be converted by specialised receptor cells into nerve impulses. Travelling at speeds in excess of 100 metres per second, they will reach her cerebral cortex through a complex exchange of information through nerve cell synapses.

Since birth, her brain has more than tripled in volume as it constantly builds the new neural circuits needed to process all the new stimuli she is bombarded with. In the first few years of her life, her brain has formed approximately one million new neural connections every second. 

Growing up in a small Australian country town in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was exposed to relatively simple environmental factors. Our black-and-white television was rarely watched; photos took a week to develop; letters were delivered to the mailbox. When I started prep, I couldn’t count beyond 10 or even spell my first name.

In comparison, my daughter knows all the letters of the alphabet thanks to the ABC Kids app. She takes pictures on her iPad, can write her own name and do basic addition and subtraction. So, is she smarter than I was at her age?

The simple answer is yes, according to University of Otago Emeritus Professor James Flynn. Washington DC-born Professor James is a political scientist who became famous in the 1980s for his landmark discovery that, from the 1930s onwards, there have been substantial gains in IQ scores in many parts of the world. This improvement has continued up to the present day and has become known as the “Flynn Effect”. 

“The brain is like a muscle and there is no doubt that it will respond to stimulation,” Professor James said to me. “To give you an illustration, in 1900 no-one drove a car. In 1950 everyone drove a car. Between 1900 and 1950 the hippocampus grew in size because it’s the map reading part of the brain. Today, thanks to the automated guidance system, the size of the hippocampus is going down because we are no longer doing the relevant exercise.”

As early as 2008, researchers were discovering the beneficial effects of computer use on the brain. In a ground-breaking study, scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, found that internet use appears to boost brain function. And, according to a Journal of Molecular Psychiatry paper, video game exposure induces structural brain plasticity and improves our performance on attention demanding and perceptual tasks.

But as to whether these brain expansion effects lead to an improvement in complex life skills, such as problem solving and planning, remains open to debate.

“People think that any stimulation of the brain necessarily pays big dividends,” says Professor James. “But it’s not clear if there’s a transfer to more socially significant cognitive skills. The rise of IQ has limited effects when accompanied by the rise of ignorance.”

. . . am I going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius or smartphone-addled addict?

Research scientist at Harvard University’s Centre on Media and Child Health, Dr David Bickham, has spent more than 20 years exploring how media, as an environmental factor, can influence children’s physical, mental and social development. When I spoke to him on the phone from Massachusetts, USA, it was 9 pm local time and his two children, aged three and five, were asleep in bed.

“It’s important to differentiate between general media use—just exposure to devices like tablets—and programs that are specifically designed for education,” he told me. “The evidence shows pretty convincingly that it’s not so much the exposure to a device that makes the difference, but it’s what you do with it and the content you’re exposed to.” 

Even with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent reduction of recommended maximum screen time for children under the age of five to just one hour a day, Dr David, as both a researcher and parent, believes restrictions like these have become a moot point.     

“In a world where screen use and technology is so pervasive, time of use starts to be more difficult to measure and less important to make guidelines on,” he said. “The more pertinent question to ask ourselves is: what’s most important developmentally for the kid, and is the kid getting that? And if they are, then I don’t think some screen time is going to hurt.”

Dr David does caution, however, that parents should use media mindfully and it should never replace important parent-child interactions, which are critical for a child’s development.

“I have not seen anything that would convince me that devices are giving a child something which is stimulating them in a way beyond an activity like reading with their parent,” he says. “We really are interpersonal beings and our information comes from our interactions with other people. The parent-child exchange that goes on with shared activities cannot be replicated artificially with a device.”   

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president, Professor Malcolm Hopwood, also warns that while there is no doubt devices have been a wonderful aid to society, there exists a subset of people who have become overly dependent on them.

“We are seeing concerns where devices can blur the boundaries between people’s work life and their personal life,” he told me. “It’s really important that people get sufficient time away from work. Personal devices can make that difficult.”

So, considering all this conflicting advice, am I going to turn out to be the mother of an internet-enhanced genius or a smartphone-
addled addict? Or will such an artificial distinction soon not exist anymore? These thoughts worry me as I stand up and touch my daughter gently on the cheek.     

“It’s bedtime,” I say.

Tears and tantrums follow. As they do virtually every night. Even when I promise to read her The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.

It’s time for Plan B. 

My daughter’s tears abruptly stop when she sees the envelope in my hand. It’s plastered with animal stickers, and her name and address are written on the front in big pink glitter letters.

“What’s that, Mummy?”   

“It’s a card,” I say. “It’s for you.”

I give her the envelope and watch as her fingernails frantically pry open the flap. She squeals in delight when she tugs out the card. It’s a cardboard cut-out of a chicken complete with yellow feathers and big black googly eyes.

“Grandma made it,” I say.

My daughter giggles and I smile. Happy, that at least for now, there are still some things that screen time, no matter how smart the device, just can’t beat.          

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