Screen Time Can Be Harmful To Young Brain Development, Study Says

A new study out of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center suggests that spending too much time in front of a screen might diminish brain development for young children, especially when in the areas of the brain associated with language and literacy.  

The study found that those young children who spent more time engaged with screens than what doctors recommend had lower volume of what doctors call “white matter integrity.”  White matter is a term given to describe cognitive function and language skill.  Effectively it is what we could call the brain’s internal communication network.  

Specifically, the study involved 47 healthy children—27 girls and 20 boys between the ages of 3 and 5—and their parents.  The researchers used standard cognitive exams and special MRI scans in order to look at the brain’s white matter (among the children).  The parents involved were instructed to answer a screening questionnaire, which was then compared against the brain scans. Comparing the two, the data suggests that kids with more than one-hour per day of screen exposure (without parental involvement) had lower levels of neural development in terms of language, literacy, and cognitive skills. 

Lead study author Dr. John Hutton comments, “While relatively small for a behavioral study, this is actually a fairly large MRI study, especially involving young children [and] the first to explore associations between screen time and brain structure.” 

Hutton goes on to say that this study introduces many questions about how much screen time is safe for younger children.  At present, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children under the age of 18 months should use screens for instances of video chatting.  Also, they recommend that children between the ages of 2 and 5 should only get about one hour of screen time per day (and it should be “high-quality” programming).  Finally, families should try to plan “screen-free” activities and, when a screen is involved, they should consume media together so they can provide context for some of the content. 

Hutton concludes, “While we can’t yet determine whether screen time causes these structural changes or implies long-term neurodevelopmental risks, these findings warrant further study to understand what they mean and how to set appropriate limits on technology use.”