Scientists finally know what screen time does to your toddler's brain

Scientists finally know what screen time does to your toddler's brain
Courtesy of John S. Hutton, MD

A report from Common Sense Media found the average child between the ages of 0 and 8 has 2 hours and 19 minutes of screen time a day, and 35% of their screen time is on a mobile device. A new study conducted by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital published in the journal, JAMA Pediatrics, found exactly what all that screen time is doing to your kid, or more specifically, your kid's developing brain. It turns out, more screen time contributes to slower brain development.

First, researchers gave the kids a test to determine how much and what kind of screen time they were getting. Were they watching fighting or educational content? Were they using it alone or with parents? Then, researchers examined the brains of children aged 3 to 5 year olds by using MRI scans. Forty seven brain-healthy children who hadn't started kindergarten yet were used for the study.

They found that kids who had more than one hour of screen time a day without parental supervision had lower levels of development in their brain's white matter, which is important when it comes to developing cognitive skills, language, and literacy.

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After the MRI, the kids were also given a cognitive skills test. The kids who had higher amounts of screen time had lower scores on the test. They had a harder time rapidly naming objects and had poorer expressive language.

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The researchers stressed that screen time does not necessarily cause brain damage, it could just be too passive of an activity for proper brain development. "Perhaps screen time got in the way of other experiences that could have helped the children reinforce these brain networks more strongly," Dr. John Hutton, the study's lead author, told CNN.

It's important to give kids a good foundation when they're that young. Young children might not be ready for screens yet. "[T]he brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years," Dr. Hutton said. "That's when brains are very plastic and soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life." The AAP recommends no more than one hour of screen time a day for kids between the ages of 2 and 5.

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Kids are a lot to handle, and sometimes it's just easier to plunk them down with an iPad. But children should be given activities that help their development, like reading, or doing something creative. Technology isn't going anywhere, but at least we know what it's doing to us and how to mitigate its negative effects.