Is Screen Time Altering the Brains of Children?

Early results from a large study suggest that screen time may impact children’s brains and learning.

 

An entire generation of kids is growing up with smartphones, tablets, and other internet-enabled electronic devices. 

This  has many parents worried. But it’s also giving scientists a chance to  answer the question: What effect does screen time have on kids’  developing brains?

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health recently offered a glimpse of the answer, based on preliminary data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study

This  study is following more than 11,000 9- and 10-year-olds at 21 sites  throughout the United States. The results were presented in December by  study director Gaya Dowling, PhD, on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”

The two big takeaways from the initial data are: 

  • MRI  scans found significant differences in the brains of some children who  reported using smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven  hours a day.
  • Children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests.

Questions about screen time remain

The  brain scans showed that kids with lots of screen time had a premature  thinning of the cortex. This outermost layer of the brain processes  different types of information from the senses.

“That’s typically  thought to be a maturational process,” Dowling said in the CBS  interview. “So what we would expect to see later is happening a little  bit earlier.”

Is screen time to blame for these brain and learning differences?

Dr. Ellen Selkie,  an adolescent medicine physician at the University of Michigan C.S.  Mott Children’s Hospital, told Healthline that “the only conclusion we  can draw right now is that two things are happening at the same time.  But it’s hard to tell whether one caused the other.”

For example,  excessive screen time may lower children’s academic performance. But it  could also be that children who have difficulty with certain mental  tasks may be more drawn to screens for some reason.

The same is  true of the differences seen in some children’s brain scans — did screen  time cause those changes, or are children with cortical thinning more  drawn to screens?

Selkie wasn’t involved in the study.

Dowling  told “60 Minutes” that while some questions about the impact of screen  time will be answered over the next few years, the long-term effects  won’t be known for many years — possibly with more of an answer.

“We’ll  be able to see not only how much time are they spending, how they  perceive it impacting them, but also what are some of the outcomes,”  said Dowling in the CBS interview. “And that will get at the question of  whether there’s addiction or not.”

Growing research on screen time

Other studies have found that excessive screen time can harm children’s health, like increasing obesity and disrupting sleep.

Earlier  research focused on television and console videos games, because that’s  what was around at the time. But since the iPhone was introduced in  2007, the screen time landscape has changed drastically.

Many newer studies now include Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and other uses of electronic devices.

This  includes research mentioned in the “60 Minutes” segment. In one study,  Dr. Kara Bagot at the University of California at San Diego and her  colleagues scanned teenagers’ brains while they checked their Instagram  feed. 

They found that when teenagers viewed their Instagram feed,  the reward system of their brain activated. Bagot and others believe  that electronic devices can stimulate the release of dopamine, a brain  chemical involved in cravings and desire.

Another recent study found that teens who use electronic media at night are more at risk for sleep disturbances and symptoms of depression.

Cutting back on screen time may relieve some of these symptoms. Researchers  at the University of Pennsylvania found that college students who  limited their screen time to less than 30 minutes a day were less lonely  and depressed, even after just three weeks.

This research and the  ABCD study add to our growing understanding of how screen time affects  children, although Selkie cautions against thinking that “electronic  devices are melting everyone’s brains.”

“It’s clear that there is  an interplay between media and child development,” she said, “but I  don’t think it’s realistic to take away all electronic devices.”

For parents concerned about their child’s screen time, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated their media guidelines a couple years ago based on recent research. Their suggestions include:

  • For children under 18 months old, no screen time.
  • For children 18 to 24 months old, parents should choose only high-quality media and watch it with their child.
  • For  children 2 to 5 years old, less than one hour per day of high-quality  programming is recommended, with parents watching along.

The bottom line

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health recently offered preliminary data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study

They had two early takeaways from the data:

  • MRI  scans found significant differences in the brains of some children who  reported using smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven  hours a day.
  • Children who reported more than two hours a day of screen time got lower scores on thinking and language tests.



Source:https://www.healthline.com/health-news/how-does-screen-time-affect-kids-brains

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