Brain Hacking, Part 4: How Babies’ Brains Get Hacked And What To Do About It

In the past I’ve written about the dangers of excessive screen time including how it can lead to increased mental illness and violent behavior. In a previous post I talked about things parents can do to help train kids to use technology healthfully. In this post I talk about how screen time can affect the youngest among us.

The video below is called “Funny Baby Video”, but there is nothing funny about it. Actually, there is something very sinister and disturbing going on here.

These kids act like they are 12 months going on 13 years. What is it about electronic devices that is so appealing to a young developing mind? What makes these babies become so distressed when the device is taken away, and so happy when they get it?

Two words: brain hacking. Babies’ brains are extremely sensitive to it, and to appreciate this we need to understand two core concepts about the way their brains develop: modeling and attunement.

Baby’s brains are hard-wired to learn by modeling. Babies learn an amazing amount from body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, even before they understand what you are saying. Whatever they see you dislike, they shun. Whatever they see you enjoy, they want. Whatever appears to have significant value to you will be valuable to them. That’s why the objects they often like the most are the ones they see their parents using: TV remote, pans, pens, wallets, keys, and yes, parents’ smartphones.

That’s why, If you want to avoid your child’s brain being hacked, you need to keep up a good mental firewall yourself.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem, courtesy of Unsplash

There is another reason as well. Young humans are wired with an innate drive to do things that produce a change in their caregivers. Face to face interactions with their caregivers literally is what builds their brains as neurons make synaptic connections with other neurons. Starting even during the first weeks of life, babies begin to stare at, then coo and smile at their parents. When they get a response, pleasure circuits are activated in their brain that release, among other neurotransmitters, dopamine. This creates feelings of pleasure, well being, and attachment.

But something happens in parents’ brains, too, as they respond to their young human’s displays. They become “attuned.” This “attunement” is the beautiful process of the wiring together of two different nervous systems.

Parents reward their baby’s overtures by responding with appropriate silliness, comfort, inquisitiveness, surprise or displeasure, which shapes baby’s future overtures. This results in a “serve and return” practicum that builds on previous interactions. These interactions come from the work and play that moms and dads do subconsciously every moment of the day as they interact with their little people. This results in increasing attunement from minute to minute, day to day.

Both parent and baby benefit from attunement. Parents learn what makes the infant “tick”- what makes them happy, sad or comforted, and infants learn from the feedback they get from their parents’ that they are seen, heard, safe, cared for and valued, and how they should act around their parent.

These simple exchanges gradually become more complex as babies learn to laugh, get attention, make faces, get more attention, show off, get more attention, copy their parents’ sounds, get more attention, understand speech, get even more attention, and finally talk (did I mention getting attention?). They not only become attached but learn how to form attachments later in life. They build a foundation from which they can safely explore the world.

These “emotionally attuned” interactions also drive the development of “mirror neurons” in the infant brain that are important for empathy and ability to “read” emotions in others. Strong attachment to a caregiver is crucial in the formation of self esteem, which brings resilience in overcoming stress and adversity and helps with emotional self-regulation later in life.

How is this process disrupted if a highly responsive, interactive, stimulating touch screen is put in front of baby? Watching the above video, would you suppose the pleasure-causing dopamine release that is well known to occur in the brains of video gamers could also be happening in these baby’s brains? How can that affect a baby’s sensitivity to cues from parents? Alternatively, what if a mom or dad is absorbed by screen time, frequently checking and sending texts, and missing a baby’s cues? A similar scenario is dramatically explored through the famous still face experiment, as seen in the following video.

I have seen this video dozens of times, and I still get a pit in my stomach every time I see it. In the video, a mother suddenly withdraws after engaging face to face with her child. The baby keeps trying to get mom to interact, and when she is denied, she screeches, cries, gets angry and increasingly distressed. This response is extremely instructive.

In the past, (the experiment was first studied in 1975) scientists used this experiment to understand the harmful effects caused in infants by parental depression, stress, drug use, and neglect. But now, in our uber-connected smartphone age, can we add parental texting, gaming, and surfing to the list?

It’s hard enough to emotionally connect with an adult who is constantly checking their phone. How much harder is it if you are a baby using your budding social skills to get an adult’s attention? What messages would you receive from your parent if your overtures are ignored, misunderstood or, worse, punished? How much harder is it for a screen-addicted parent to become “attuned” to their baby and meet their growing social and emotional needs?

Despite popular belief, “multi-tasking” is a myth, something our brains are truly not capable of doing. We cannot pay attention to both, and one always comes at the expense of the other.

True “FaceTime” with your baby is fleeting. For some parents, you may need to break up with your phone. Structure your screen time and your device settings in a way that allows you to remain connected to your friends and family but that doesn’t take away from nurturing. This may require silencing group texting threads, postponing social media updates, or using your device when your child is asleep or in the care of another adult.

It’s true that if you are a first-time mom, you will often feel isolated, especially if transitioning from work to staying at home. Social media, texting, and emailing can help you stay connected, but it’s important to limit your screen time in front of baby.

We also need to be mindful of baby’s use of screens. Screen time use at this age can cause delays in language and social/emotional development. I have seen this in my practice. Excessive screen time is associated with babies taking longer to fall asleep and reduced total sleep time. On the other hand, sharing a book with a baby has been shown to help them to soothe, sleep longer and promote attunement and language and emotional development.

My prescription for kids under 2 years: little or no exposure to screens. I know it’s hard when older siblings have the TV on or mom needs to shower. Screen time should be used for short periods of time, infrequently, if at all. Babies have been fine for decades and centuries without smartphones. If you can, it’s better to occupy their attention with physical toys and other objects they can manipulate with their hands, experiment with, make noise with, practice fine motor skills and problem solve with. Even better if you have to interact with them to get them interested in playing with it. Click here for some ideas on how to do this.

One exception to the screen time ban for this age could be video-chatting with family members, which can be a really important way to stay connected, especially in 2020. This has actually has been shown to help toddlers learn words. But there is nothing about the technology itself that promotes such learning- it is only a vehicle to facilitate human interaction, and that is what drives the learning.

Teaching our children to use technology in healthy ways begins with how we ourselves use it right from the moment they are born. We can’t hope to teach our kids good habits unless we’ve already adopted and modeled them. It’s up to us to cultivate their brains in healthy ways. To read more suggestions on how to teach kids healthy screen habits, see my other posts on Brain Hacking.