Will too much screen time hurt our children’s brains?

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As children return to school this month, millions are adjusting to online learning. But what do we understand about the impact of digital learning on the development of our children’s brains? Will all those extra hours of navigating digital content make for smarter kids or will it hurt their ability to focus and fully process what they see? 

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks to UCLA Professor Maryanne Wolf about her book; “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World” and the affects of too much screen time on the developing brain.  

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: When a child uses an iPad or computer screen and is trying to ingest lots of information, what’s happening inside the brain?

Maryanne Wolf: “Each of us can read on different mediums but when we talk about children, we are talking about an unformed reading brain circuit. Unlike oral language, we were never born to read, it's a very simple concept, but with complex consequences. In order to read the brain makes a new circuit and that new circuit is plastic. So when we learn to read text the way we did 10 years ago, we were learning in a particular way, how to give attention to the development of what I call deep literacy. 

Here is the rub, deep literacy is a collection of processes. It begins with background knowledge; making an analogy to what that word means. 

One of the most important aspects that concerns me is whether or not when we read, we are giving enough time to take on the perspective of others. That's what builds empathy. That's what builds more background knowledge. But that collected with inference and analogy and all the rest of the background knowledge we have leads us to be able to be critically analytical. 

When we're reading on a screen, we have a tendency to be distracted. So when you think about what a normal screen does, even as I'm doing this particular interview with you, my mind is darting between the messages I have that are opening. We human beings have a novelty reflex, it means we are going to go to those areas of distraction, because that's what our ancestors did to stay alive. We were constantly aware of danger or possibility. That same novelty reflex makes us easily bifurcating our attention. There's a wonderful line from Linda Stone that children are in a state of constant or continuous partial attention. 

What this means in a developing reader, is that the child is more likely to have that distraction take away the attention they need to develop inference, background knowledge, applying it in analogical ways and making finally, within milliseconds a judgement. So the brain asks: ‘Is this true or is it not?Is this something that I should believe or disregard. I just absorb the information and go further.’ 

The ideal reading brain that we are forming in our children is able to allocate attention not just to decoding and having access to the first meaning of whatever's there but to work with that meaning; to process it, to immerse into the world of, let's say, Wilbur’s world in ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and to learn the empathy that comes from that.

The iPad is certainly better than the laptop, but the iPad and the screen are still giving us a set towards the transitory, towards the evanescent, especially with children. The very concreteness of the medium helps give them a kind of solidity to the words, an almost geometric quality is attached to the words. 

Everything wraps around three principles; first, we weren't meant to read so we build a plastic circuit. Second, that plastic reading brain circuit reflects the characteristics of the medium and third, the more you are on one medium, the more likely all of your reading, is affected by the dominant medium.”

Kids between the ages of zero and 10 are on screens all day long. Parents  are arguably concerned about this change, what would you tell them right now?

“I wrote a piece in the Guardian last week, because I am trying to tell parents, this is a very hard moment, but they have a role to play. It's a role where they can join the learning process of their child in ways they never could before. I am one of a group of scholars creating what is called Global Literacy Hub at Haskins Laboratories at Yale University, in which we are organizing all the activities that go into reading from zero to adolescence, and providing links to free online materials and activities. 

Ultimately we're trying to pull things together so parents and teachers have access to really good curated activities that can help their child especially in those early years build up these foundational oral language skills. 

That's on the digital side, but on the other side I want every parent to realize they should not have the child on the screen as many hours as they are. The antidote is the simplest of one. It is to read to their child or work with their child in reading to a dog, or to a sister or a brother, but to make books become one of the true antidotes to the time on the screen, but to do this in a fun way with choice and with engagement. 

There's going to be wonderful things happening in the very near future. I use the term ‘Bookelicious’ because this is going to be an App that parents can use to find out what in 15,000 books are most appealing and most developmentally appropriate for their child. 

There are all kinds of things happening but the book is something precious. I can't tell parents enough how the book gives a shared interactive experience and is also helping the child to learn attention from zero to five. I want them to read every day, every night. Read, talk, and sing is the mantra I want parents to have. But it doesn't stop at five, five to ten is when modeling is also important. We too shouldn’t be on the screen as much we are and I literally begin and end my days with books. Books literally slow us down just enough to remember we have an inner sanctuary, the reading life. 

That’s the Proustian principle, where we have the time we and the brain is giving extra milliseconds to go beyond critical analysis into the alchemy of reading; the time it takes to reflect, contemplate and gather our own novel thoughts.”



  • Maryanne Wolf - author of “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World;” Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA


Andrea Brody