With an increased prevalence of and access to realistic, violent video games and graphic films, Christina Cunningham, an experienced YMCA Youth Outreach worker, knows first-hand that children can learn to mimic these actions if they’re exposed to them in their younger years.
Environmental factors have an impact on the way children’s brains are wired. Children who experience trauma at a young age, such as abuse or witnessing domestic violence, can be triggered into a high state of anxiety. Though they may not have recollection of these events, the trauma still shapes them.
Research is showing that increased media access is changing how kids learn and interact with others.
“In the young years, media has a strong risk of reducing the time that kids spend in creative and imaginative play, or interacting with other people,” says Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, an organization that helps children develop critical skills when interacting with the media.
Johnson designs digital literacy tutorials such as Passport to the Internet and MyWorld and has written for several blogs and magazines worldwide about cyber bullying and body image. Johnson has 10 years teaching experience in media education, filmmaking, English and special education.
For many, the media is a part of everyday life yet Johnson says media-related activities should be monitored.
Dr. Fraser Mustard, distinguished Canadian physician and scientist, studied brain development during childhood and findings from his 1999 study showed the first six years of life are extremely crucial for brain development. Mustard found that if we guide children in positive ways from early childhood, then the child has a better chance of succeeding. And if we steer them wrong, it takes a lot of hard work to positively reverse those teachings.
Johnson explains the importance of healthy influences at a young age, with impact from parents, peers and society as a whole.
“What we know from our research is that parents have really strong influences on kids,” says Johnson.
“What we strongly recommend is for parents to curate kids’ media content when they’re young and to co-view with them, so that they can model the idea of critically engaging with media.”
Working with youth on a daily basis has shown child development workers the importance of healthy interactions between parents and children, and children and their surroundings.
In her years working with youth at Brantford’s YMCA, Cunningham strived to support children in the early years of brain development by recognizing the influence of the media and working with them to comprehend the impact of its messages.
“Studies show that there’s an increase in heart rate, faster breathing and higher blood pressure that mimics the fight or flight response,” Cunningham says while describing the impact that violent media has on brain development and growth.
She questions whether there’s a tangible link between the amount of violence they are exposed to and their mental health, since anxiety, depression and ADHD have increased in alarming numbers in society in recent years.
Terra Manuliak, Community Education and Outreach Coordinator from the Sexual Assault Centre of Brant says brain development is crucial. The images a child is exposed to determines healthy growth.
Manuliak likens young brains to pasta grinders, saying the quality of what comes out is a product of what goes in. “If our pasta grinder is getting images at a very young age of social conditioning and social constructs… then what’s coming out?” Manuliak asks.
Children don’t have a critical eye for analyzing until they are taught to question what they see, which is why Manuliak suggests having open dialogue about what the child is exposed to.
“If you give them a critical lens at a young age, they will start questioning everything else too.”
According to Johnson, parents need to be conscious throughout a child’s youth of the moral lessons absorbed from the media.
“Because our brains are doing so much heavy-lifting in those first few years in terms of developing and specializing, it’s important that we make sure media is pushing more valuable activity out.”
By giving children the opportunity to analyze the messages they receive, studies show they will become educated much earlier in life.
“The younger a child is, the more plastic their brain is. Young people engage very heavily in media multitasking or multi- screening, which has the effect that they’re a lot less likely to be intellectually, critically engaging with the content that they’re consuming,” Johnson says, “because if you’re consuming one or two things at a time, it’s very hard to engage critically and to think about the message.”
Karen Perrin, a child development worker at Brant Family and Children’s Services for fifteen years, studied Albert Bandura’s theory which states that children learn through observation and imitating what they see.
Interacting with parents and children on a daily basis, Perrin works to strengthen their relationships, since parents have a huge impact on their children’s brain development.
“We do something called ‘limit screen time.’ We try to educate parents on the importance of knowing what your kids are watching and limiting how much,” Perrin says. “We do a lot of education around the fact that television should be limited and that you should be watching television with your kids and choosing programs that the family can watch together, with good family values.”
Perrin constructs activities for parents and children, like group cooking and family board game nights, with the purpose of teaching the importance of positive parenting.
“Families can come in and play board games with their kids. We’re starting that so it gives parents another option so there’s not as much exposure to the media.”
Sarah Robertson, manager of the Child Development Unit at Brant Family and Children Services since 2003, works on programs with parents and children to help them understand the different developmental stages of childhood.
Through her work experience, Robertson sees the importance of positively praising children and exposing them to age-appropriate activities.
“It’s really important for there to be balance and to certainly limit screen time; not to expose the developing brain to some of the more violent, graphic and negative stereotypes in programming that you can access,” Robertson says.
The programming Robertson plans is designed to enhance and reinforce positive interactions and relationships with children.
With a variety of programming available to families, it challenges children to re-evaluate the messages they have learned in their childhood to determine, whether they interpreted media and their social surroundings in the most beneficial ways.
“Some programs are about changing the way you think. In our afterschool programs, we talk about healthy relationships and how to use social media, texting and messaging in a positive way.”
There are many programs and applications driven to educate people on the importance of healthy brain development, and one way Nick Warner is doing this is through OurPact, an app that gives parents an outlet to monitor their children’s screen time.
OurPact guides children through a healthy relationship with technology and gives them a way to balance the use of their devices through parental supervision.
With OurPact downloaded on both the parent and child’s devices, they’re able to block and manage their child’s Internet and app use.
Warner, director of marketing at ParentsWare, the company that developed OurPact, discusses the importance of open conversation between a parent and child about what is being viewed online.
“In our application, it gives parents the ability to set those firm guidelines and have that conversation and open those new lines of communication with their child,” he says.
He suggests encouraging children to look at media critically and ask questions, which will help them understand the key concepts of media literacy.
When parents encourage open communication and critical thinking, and limit the negative messages that children are exposed to, they can help mitigate many of the harmful aspects of media’s influence.