Is summer lowering your child's IQ?

Caution: while your kids are having fun in the sun, their brains may be at risk. Learn which summertime mind-melting hazards to avoid and get brain-boosting alternatives.

By Hank Pellissier

Overcooked

The sun's strong rays aren't just damaging your children's epidermis — they’re also diminishing their brainpower. Frying lazily for days on end on the hot sand can shrivel a person's smarts up to 20 IQ points, according to research by Professor Siegfried Lehrl of Germany's University of Erlangen. An excess of inactivity reduces oxygen to the brain, dimming neurons and literally causing frontal lobes to shrivel. Add to that dehydration from excessive heat or alcohol, and it gets worse, decreasing brain cell volume by as much as 15 percent.

What you can do: Thankfully, the effect is temporary and can be remedied when the brain is cooled and energized. To keep your young sun worshiper's noggin sharp, encourage scampering in the shade and drinking fluids. Vigorous exercise is superb for developing minds because it instigates the creation of new neurons (brain cells).

Eat wisely

Like many American parents, you may let dietary standards slide during the summer months. If so, keep in mind that a daily menu of junk food — soda, candy, and sugary or salty processed treats — can considerably decrease your child's IQ. In England, children ingesting an unhealthy diet averaged five IQ points lower than their more intelligently-fed peers. In India, students devouring foodstuffs full of artificial flavors, preservatives, and coloring lagged 14 percent behind their more organically-fed rivals, claims an article in the Hindustan Times. Minerals like iron and zinc are also essential. Indian researchers noted that children with anemia (iron deficiency) were burdened with significant developmental delay, and those with zinc deficiency have "memory deficits."

What you can do: Between occasional ice cream treats, feed them a regular diet of brain food, especially these four healthy staples kids love.To further bump up scholastic skills, serve your students an East Asian staple. A Japanese study of 290 children discovered that those who were fed wheat had an IQ four points lower than those whose main grain was rice. And if they demand a fun food, let them chew on gum (preferably sugarless), which stimulates their brain stems, according to Professor Lehrl. The chomping motion increases the flow of blood to their brain, elevating their attention level and ability to learn.

Modern menaces

Do you have "indoor kids" who enjoy 24/7 interaction with electronic toys? They won't break their arms playing Xbox, but the mental risk is significant. Young children shouldn't view screens more than two hours per day — it's damaging to their developing neurological systems, resulting in hyperactivity and shortened attention spans.Those “safe” two hours can’t go unchecked, either. Specific cartoons are especially debilitating. A University of Virginia study reports that watching just nine minutes of fast-paced shows like SpongeBob SquarePants impairs a four-year-old's executive function. Tween and teen boys should be steered clear of violent video games. An Indiana University study reports that combat games (think Call of Duty) reduce kids’ frontal lobe activation to such a low level that it matches those of teens with disruptive behavior disorders, leading to aggressive, impulsive behavior. Luckily, not all video games are so detrimental: speed competitions are a harmless option. Teenagers emailing and texting might also be dumbing down their brains; technology trend forecaster Paul Saffo asserts that these activities lower their IQ by 10 points.(Learn more about screens and kids.)

What you can do: Get your kids into the exciting three-dimensional world of the great outdoors. (Learn more on how fresh air will give your kids healthier bodies and brains.) Another great screen break: have your kids match their wits against each other in chess, which has been credited with elevating problem-solving ability and pattern and object recognition. Other good games with brain-boosting potential include Scrabble, backgammon, and other board games.

Positive parenting

Your children might be your constant companions in the summertime, so make sure your behavior is brain-benign, not threatening. Studies show that spankings reduce IQ by 2.8 to 5.0 points. Yelling at your children can be detrimental as well. Harvard research suggests that "parental verbal abuse" damages a child's verbal IQ.

What you can do: When summer tempers flare, cool down with grown-up time outs. Getting outside for plenty of physical play will help clear everyone's heads — and moods. Finally, there's no time like summertime to give your kids plenty of hugs and "I love yous."

Household hazards

During the summer, your child may be spending more time at home, so make sure it's a safe, brain-healthy place. Indoor mold contaminating a house can triple the risk of scoring low on an IQ test, claims a 2011 study from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Lead lurking in old paint chips and many bright-colored toys can cause an IQ loss of four to nine points. Second-hand smoke is able to maim mental growth by five IQ points in reading.

What you can do: If you suspect mold or lead lurks in your house, contact the local office of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Keep the smoking outdoors and away from your kids as much as possible. Also, if you think your child has ingested any household poison, call the American Association of Poison Control Centers: 1-800-222-1222.

Tween and teen troubles

Adventure-seeking adolescent are giving little thought to protecting their mind matter during the long, lazy days of summer. But extra caution is in order when it comes to tweens and teens attracted to risk. Injuries and concussions — via car accidents or skateboarding crashes, for example — can result in severe mental damage. One study reports a 14 point IQ loss after 20 weeks. Teenagers imbibing alcohol, especially binge-drinkers, expose their still-developing brains to possible long-term impairment. Teen smoking is similarly unwise. Research has determined that the habit is associated with cognitive damage. Marijuana is also stupefying; studies suggest that teen stoners can develop problems making decisions, recalling details, and severely impairing their cognitive flexibility. (Learn more about other teen-related dangers.) 

What you can do: While encouraging your adolescent's independence, keep an open dialog about their whereabouts and who they’re spending time with and what they’re doing. For tips on how to keep your tween or teen's body and brain safe and intact, go to the National Institutes of Health’s site on teen health.

Academics anyone?

Just because kids, and parents, are away from school, there’s no reason to stop thinking about education. The dreaded summer slide — when students not involved in summer learning lose on average two months of grade-level math and reading — is one of the biggest risks to your child's brain during this long break.

What you can do: After two to three weeks of vacationing, many children are happy to enroll in summer school classes, especially to study subjects they're curious about. Look into local summer school programs or sign up for easy-to-use (no driving!) online courses to up the IQ ante. Summer is also a time for parents to get pushy about their child's next regular school session. Did you get your children into the school that you wanted? Can you petition again, and again? Are your children enrolled in the classes they want and with the best teacher available? In Maximizing Intelligence, author David J. Armor cites studies that show bad teachers deflate their pupils' IQ by two points annually. What’s more, Armor cites reports indicating that overcrowded classrooms disadvantage children by the same margin, two IQ points per year.

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer whose fiction and essays have been been widely published and anthologized. A former columnist for Salon and SF Gate, he is a regular contributor to h+ Magazine.