Is too much screen time affecting young kids’ brain development? Here’s what parents should know

Many parents struggle when it comes to screen time with their kids over how much is, well, too much — a concern likely fueled by the growing body of research looking into how screen time is affecting children.

Screen time is associated with lower attention spans in preschoolers who spend two hours daily vs. 30 minutes in front of a screen, found an April study out of Canada. Right before that, a study published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found a significant association between the use of smartphones and tablets and expressive speech delays in 18-month-old children.

Yet another study, this one published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that 2- and 3-year-olds with higher levels of screen time perform particularly poorly on developmental screening tests at 3 and 5 years old.

And now the latest findings, published in JAMA Pediatrics, have revealed that the brains of prekindergarten children who spend more than an hour per day of screen time without parental interaction are associated with underdeveloped areas (called white matter) that control language and self-regulation.

The study, conducted by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, looked at the brains of 47 children between the ages of 3 and 5, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and cognitive testing. The authors found that the children, along with having lower levels of brain development, also had lower scores on language and literacy measures.

"This study raises questions as to whether at least some aspects of screen-based media use in early childhood may provide sub-optimal stimulation during this rapid, formative state of brain development," John Hutton, MD, lead author of the study and director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children's, told ScienceDaily. "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."

So what should parents take away from these studies?

It’s hard for parents to read about these studies and not wonder (and worry) about how screen time is affecting their children. But experts say this doesn’t mean heavy media usage causes “brain damage" in your kids, as Jenny Radesky, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, told CNN — or that you should automatically ban all screens in your home.

Some experts point out that it’s still “premature” to say that screen time directly affects children’s brains.

The literature suggests that there may be a link, though we are still far from claims as definitive as ‘affecting children’s brains,’” Dillon Browne, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology specializing in children’s mental health at the University of Waterloo in Canada, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care, agrees, telling Yahoo Lifestyle, “While much more scientific data is needed to establish a correlation between screen time and brain tissue disorganization or IQ effects, the findings represent another ‘red flag’ emanating from research, this time involving a potentially more vulnerable group of very young users.”

But it’s not just about spending hours in front of a screen that can be problematic for kids. It’s also about what that screen time is often replacing: physical activity and face-to-face interactions with others.

“It’s really important not to get ahead of the science here,” David Anderson, PhD, the senior director of national programs and outreach at the Child Mind Institute, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “What research on screens shows is that too much screen time pushes out other important developmental moments for kids. It’s not so much that we have a strong body of evidence yet — it’s more about what the kids aren’t doing while they’re watching that screen.”

Another study shows that screen time may be affecting young children's developing brains. (Photo: Getty Images)
Another study shows that screen time may be affecting young children's developing brains. (Photo: Getty Images)

How much screen time should kids have?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has age-based recommendations for parents:

  • Parents should avoid letting babies and toddlers younger than 18 months have any screen time, except for video-chats, such as with family members.

  • If parents choose to introduce toddlers and young children 18 to 24 months old to age-appropriate media, it should only be through high-quality programming and apps — and parents should be involved and engaged, since “this is how toddlers learn best,” according to the AAP. “Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided.”

  • For children older than 2 years, parents should set screen time limits to no more than one hour or less per day of high-quality programming. The AAP also recommends viewing the programs with your child.

By “high-quality programming,” Anderson explains that means shows that have themes, such as “perspective-taking and emotions, good stories that build characters and confronting situations,” as well as “characters abiding by values that the family agrees with.”

But again, this is simply a guideline. “We don’t know where the magic threshold lies, or if there is one,” Aboujaoude says. “While helpful as general guidelines, recommendations with specific time limits such as those issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics are not necessarily based on hard science. The main goal should be to interact with curated, high-quality content; to do it in a supervised manner in the case of very young children; and to not allow it to happen at the expense of offline experiences.”

It’s also crucial for parents to examine their own relationship with devices. “Parents need to provide good modeling early on — we cannot expect our children to minimize screen time and mindless online activities if we are just as consumed or ‘addicted’ ourselves,” says Aboujaoude.

Quality of screen time matters

Not all screen time is created equal, however. As Common Sense Media puts it: “There's a huge difference between an hour spent shooting zombies in Zombie Duck Hunt and an hour spent learning vocabulary from a smartphone app or composing music online.”

Browne says that content quality matters and that it’s an important area for future research. “Watching Sesame Street with friends or peers and learning about letters, numbers and helping others will not be the same as playing a first-person shooter game,” he says.

TV, in general, may also have an advantage: While tablets and smartphones are more likely to be watched solo, as Browne notes, it can be easier for parents to interact with their kids while they watch TV, discussing the show’s themes, characters and conflicts. “One of the aspects of television viewing that is likely favorable is the opportunity for co-viewing,” explains Browne. “This means that young people and their friends or caregivers can engage in the consumption of media together, which creates opportunities for perspective-taking, teaching, and connection.”

But whether kids are playing a video game or watching TV, Anderson says it’s important for parents to stay aware and involved, making sure that what their children are watching online is in sync with the “real world values” of the family. “When your kids are getting involved on screens at younger ages, you have to be with them,” he says.

While setting screen time limits is also important, Anderson says that, above all, it comes down to knowing your own child. “If your kid is getting their homework done, seeing friends, participating in extracurricular activities, spending quality time with parents, having some family meals, and it’s not impacting their academic achievements or sleep,” he says, then parents shouldn’t be beating themselves up if their kid has more than an hour of screen time.

As Anderson puts it, “It’s about balance.”

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