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Pandemic Babies Developing More Slowly, Talking Less

Toddler stares down at smartphone

Some babies born during COVID are developing more slowly and talking less than babies born before the pandemic, new research shows. But parents can help their babies catch up. 

“I’m seeing children with global delays; with deficits in really early pre-language skills like pointing, giving, and reaching,” says Rhode Island speech-language pathologist Alyssa Loberti, M.S. CCC-SLP.

Less Parent-Baby Interaction

Due to stress, burnout, and other reasons, some parents had less than typical back-and-forth interaction with their babies during the height of COVID. As a result, the babies heard fewer words and some now have “significantly less vocalizations” than those born before the pandemic, finds Brown University’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab.

Less Baby Brain White Matter

ABI Lab imaging reveals some babies also have comparatively less white matter, a structural element the brain needs to learn and process information.   

“It is the conversational turns that drive brain development,” ABI Lab chief investigator Sean Deoni, told The 74.  

Developmental Deficits Linked to Screentime

Speech-language pathologist Loberti also sees a link between her young clients’ developmental deficits and how much time they have spent watching screens.  

A new JAMA Pediatrics study of Chinese moms and babies conducted during the pandemic lockdown shows that “excessive screen exposure in early years is associated with poorer cognitive and social-emotional development, especially working memory capacities.” The babies studied who had little to no screen exposure have few learning and attention issues.  

Children’s Apps Shown to be Manipulative

Meanwhile, another study in JAMA Pediatrics finds that many apps are made to manipulate and confuse little kids. The apps use design techniques that keep little ones engaged in games, make appeals to spend money on extras, and force extended viewing of ads.

For instance, 1 in 5 of the popular apps that were analyzed use pressure tactics, such as when the narrator of ABC Animals says, “You can play with these cute animals for a tiny fee! Ask your parents!”

An ad in the app Mr. Bullet won’t disappear until the child swipes the screen and, as the study states, “makes Santa shoot people”.

Caregiver Interaction Key to Brain Development

Along with dire findings, JAMA Pediatrics gives parents keys to improvement. Providing “cognitively stimulating activities” such as playing with non-electronic real-life objects, reading, and back-and-forth interaction with caring people leads to a child’s “optimal general ability development.”

Indeed, the non-profit LENA (Language ENvironment Analysis) followed a group of 9- to 14-year-olds  and found that “adult-child conversations influence a child’s IQ, verbal comprehension and vocabulary scores 10 years later.”

The LENA study concludes: “These data support the hypothesis that early talk and interaction, particularly during the relatively narrow developmental window of 18 to 24 months of age, can be used to predict school-age language and cognitive outcomes.” 

Free Webinar on Baby Development 

Speech-language pathologist Loberti sees major improvements when parents supplement what their little ones may have lacked during in the pandemic. By doing so, she says, “The changes have been phenomenal.” 

On Wednesday, June 29 at 8pm ET, Loberti presents simple no-cost ways to boost a baby’s or toddler’s development, with a focus on specific playthings, interactions, and activities. She’ll explain why, for instance, it’s more brain-beneficial for your child to spy for apples with you in the grocery store than to do a shopping game on a screen.

About the author:

Jenifer Joy Madden is a certified digital wellness educator, health journalist, and mother of three. She founded DurableHuman.com in 2009 and has written self-help books including How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design.

A Plan for Humane Technology

woman holding pen with hands on top of notebook sits next to open laptop

With a new frame of mind, designers can create humane technology. Former Google tech ethicist Tristan Harris wants to teach them how.  

“This talk is about the wisdom we need to steer technology, and our future.” The words from his new message shone brightly from the screen at the 2022 mindfulness in technology conference, Wisdom 2.0.

Harris was back at the place where in 2015, he pulled back the curtain on how tech companies used “persuasive design.” They were in “a race to the bottom of our brainstems to seduce our instincts.”

Their products did not support human well-being, he claimed. “It’s like being on a diet, but you are only handed menus with burgers and fries.” 

Slide from Tristan Harris 2015 Wisdom 2.0 presentation
From the Tristan Harris presentation at Wisdom 2.0 2015

Design as Determinant

In How to Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design, tech usability expert Jared Spool defines Design as “the rendering of intent.”

Harris believes tech companies’ intentions were way off when they started Google, Facebook, and other platforms. He should know, having trained in the Stanford University Persuasive Technology Lab.

Since tech products could be accessed for free, users’ personal data were fair game, which companies made unprecedented sums from selling and re-selling. Individuals were hyper-targeted under the guise of “giving users what they want.”

Silicon Valley founders saw tech as a neutral vessel. That users became trapped in polarized filter bubbles was not the platforms’ problem.

The result today: the loudest and meanest social media opinions seem to be the majority. As Harris observes, “we start to believe the extreme voices and stereotypes represent the world.”

Slide from Tristan Harris talk at Wisdom 2.0 says "We start to believe the extreme voices & stereotypes represent the world."

Besides political turmoil, he blames early Silicon Valley attitudes for creating problems ranging from information overload and addiction, to synthetic charlatans including bots and DeepFakes. 

Over the years, it became standard practice to use psychological sleight of hand to keep users engaged.

Children have been especially affected. Since the dawn of social media, youth mental health has significantly eroded.

Even the brain development of babies has been caught in technology’s web.

Toddler using tablet

Toward Humane Technology

After much thought and consultation, Harris has come up with a plan: for tech designers to Think Differently.  Continue reading

3 Resilience Deposits a Day Help Push Stress Away

Woman with eyes closed sits in meditation pose behind laptop sitting on desk.

Spending a few minutes outdoors, chatting, and taking a nap are simple but powerful ways to fight stress, which has surged in the pandemic.     

Between 2019 and 2020, stress levels of 8 in 10 adults shot upward, according to a Stress in America Harris Poll sponsored by the American Psychological Association. Family pressures have led to record levels of depression and anxiety among children, reports JAMA Pediatrics.

But neither adults nor kids need to grimace and bear it. There are lab-proven ways to cope.

Short-term versus Chronic Stress

Stress comes in two basics forms: short-term and longer-lasting, or “chronic.”  

Short-term stress tends to go away. Like when your alarm goes off in the morning. You’re shocked at first, but once you get up and move on, you forget that initial jolt.  

Longer-lasting stress is caused by longer-term life problems, such as financial strife or difficult relationships.

Left unchecked, stress can add up to major health problems. When experienced over a long period of time, it has been linked with heart disease, diabetes and the spread of cancer, as well as other chronic diseases. And physiological responses can start young,” according to the journal Nature.

Yet, Nature concludes, “some people are remarkably resilient to these and other stressors.”

The X-factor is attitude.

Continue reading

Learning about Dopamine May Help Kids and Adults Manage Screentime

Teen boy strums guitar

Understanding how dopamine works in the brain may help people achieve better life balance, especially when it comes to using digital devices.

That’s according to Clifford Sussman, M.D., a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C. who treats children for compulsive video game use and other screen-related mental health disorders.

Using Sussman’s concept, parents have a new way to talk with their kids about digital activities without needing the words “no”, “don’t”, or “addiction.”

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is the chemical released in your brain when you do something exciting that has an instant payoff, such as playing a thrilling video game, seeing your likes on Instagram, or clicking BUY on a nice pair of shoes. We all love that tingly feeling.

“The problem comes when you’re doing this for a really long time. Let’s say hours or even days,” says Dr. Sussman.

Over time, the constant flow of dopamine drives a person to want to repeat the exciting activity. A residual effect is feeling bored when doing other things, including academics.  

“When kids binge all weekend on games, they will be more bored of their classes on Monday,” Dr. Sussman observed in this webinar for the Ross Center.

High Versus Low Dopamine Activities

To achieve a balance, Dr. Sussman suggests alternating high-producing dopamine activities (HDAs) with activities that have little dopamine kick.   Continue reading

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