Kids using technology

Excessive Screen Time Can Stunt Children’s Brain Development, Study Shows

The use of personal devices by kids has been a debate since the birth of iPhones and growth of technology within the past decade. Parents everywhere have often found that putting a tablet in front of a screaming toddler’s face will most likely get them to be calm, even if it is for a fleeting moment. Onlookers can judge, but unless you’re a parent yourself, you probably wouldn’t understand how much of a saving grace and distraction these devices can be. However, most parents are also aware that screen time needs to be done in moderation as to not create too much of a dependency with the technology. Now, a new study conducted by pediatricians at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital shows that excessive unsupervised screen time can stunt a child’s brain development when they’re the ages of 3 – 5, according to Chicago’s WGN-TV.

“This is the first study to document associations between higher screen use and lower measures of brain structure and skills in preschool-aged kids. We found that those who used screens more than the recommended one hour a day without parental involvement had lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter — an area key to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills. This is important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years. That’s when brains are very plastic and soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life,” said lead author Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. 

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The study also discussed how an excess of screen time can cause children to have issues with paying attention, developing basic language skills, sleep patterns, and engaging with their parents. These patterns can be caused by a myriad of things. Families in general often are in homes with multiple personal devices. While a child may be getting a couple hours of general screen time every day, their parent or guardian most likely gets double the amount of time, leading to an overall decrease in interaction and connection. In addition, parents who use their devices specifically to take pictures of their kids constantly are indirectly showing their kids that the excessive use of a phone is definitely normal, and often rewarded. 

The study used a special type of MRI machine that pays extra attention to scanning the white matter of the brain. This piece of the brain is what’s responsible for the lines of communication between the grey matter of our brains. The grey matter is responsible for pretty much everything. It contains a majority of our brain cells and those cells are what communicate with our body and tells it what to do when we want it to. 

“Think of white matter as cables, sort of like the telephone lines that are connecting the various parts of the brain so they can talk to each other. A lack of development of those ‘cables’ can slow the brain’s processing speed; on the other hand, studies show that reading, juggling or learning and practicing a musical instrument improves the organization and structure of the brain’s white matter,” Hutton said.

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The study worked to measure the specific scenarios of 27 girls and 27 boys all five years old or younger. They recorded the frequency these kids were exposed to screens along with what they were specifically engaging with on the devices. Pediatricians only recommend that children of this age get a maximum of one hour of screen-time a day. The kids in the study who exceeded that had scans that showed their brains were less developed and were often more disorganized. Saying that children aren’t developing their brains at the proper rate is a hugely loaded statement, so the doctors involved with this study emphasized how preliminary their findings were, and not to worry about your child’s brain function, but definitely be aware of how much screen time their getting daily, and if you find it to be excessive, cut it down. 

Slowing down the brain development process can stunt how quickly your child picks up basic skills such as proper communication, social cues, organization, etc. So the pediatricians who conducted this study also laid out how to properly divide up screen time for children five and under. First, for any infant that’s 18 months or younger, no screen time at all is the way to go. Babies that young need to be interacting with their family, and environment. They need to become comfortable with their new world outside of the womb and get used to basic human interaction, a screen will completely stunt that development. By the time the child is two years old, that one hour of screen time can begin to be incorporated into the child’s routine. Screen time at that age should always be monitored and strictly for educational purposes. There’s plenty of resources online that children can use to help develop their language skills, and tactile ability through touch screen interaction. Hutton recommends whatever your two year old learns from their screen time should be immediately worked through again without the screen afterwards with a guardian. 

Once the child is in the 3 to 5 range, they can go unsupervised with their device use, however, screen time should remain at one hour a day, and strictly for educational purposes, which can include watching hit TV Shows like Sesame Street. This is the time in your child’s life where brain development is imperative of them learning basic skills they need to be a human. Don’t delay it with excessive use of a tablet.