Chloe Learey: Screen time and brain development

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Chloe Learey, the executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro. 

Results from a study recently published online at JAMA Pediatrics and widely reported in the media show that parts of the brain are less developed in children who use screens more than an hour a day without parent interaction. This is the guideline set by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Specifically, white matter, which is like "cables" that help different parts of the brain (gray matter) communicate was less well-developed, potentially slowing the brain’s processing speed. Additionally, the white matter responsible for executive functioning (processes that help us manage ourselves and our resources in order to achieve a goal) was underdeveloped. These aligned with results of the cognitive tests showing that the children with less-developed white matter demonstrated poorer performance on emerging literacy and expressive language skills as well as less ability to rapidly name objects.

This does not mean that screen time is causing brain damage! It does possibly mean that screen time interferes with optimal brain development, perhaps because screens are not active or participatory enough for brain development, and/or because being on screens keeps children from doing other important activities that build the brain network. Interactions with people are a key ingredient in brain development during the first years of life. The foundation for future academic learning is created in the social-emotional development that occurs before children even get to kindergarten. If a child does not have the skills to identify and cope with their feelings, to develop functional relationships with others, or to make and execute a plan, they are going to struggle to be successful in school, work and life. This study did not account for other factors that impact brain development like not having enough food, exposure to language, and parent mental health. Further research will be helpful to understand more clearly how time on screens impacts brain development.

Families can get overwhelmed worrying about how everything they are doing will impact their child’s development. Fortunately, there are many simple ways to make a positive impact. For instance, the Basics provides a straightforward framework of five things to do: maximize love, manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group and compare; explore through movement and play; read and discuss stories.

One of the most alarming statistics that the lead author Dr. John Hutton noted is that some studies show almost 90% of children are using screens by the age of 1, and some are using them as early as 2 months. Here are some of the screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics for children birth to age 5: No child under 18 months should be exposed to a screen other than video chatting with friends and family. By the age of 2, a child can learn words from a person on a live video and through some interactive touchscreens. Children aged 3 to 5 can learn from television shows and videos that are designed to support cognitive and social development, such as “Sesame Street.” It is important to know that not all educational videos, TV shows, and apps are developed using brain science as a foundation. And, both toddlers and preschoolers learn better when a teacher or caregiver interacts with them around the educational materials.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents develop personalized media use plans for each of their children, taking into account each child’s age, health, personality and developmental stage.

 The ubiquitous presence of screens in our world means that children and adults can access them almost anywhere. An iPad can make an interminable car ride more pleasant for everyone, and there are absolutely times when we make choices that may not be ideal but are real. Understanding the potential impact of screen time on the developing brain can help us make those choices more intentionally.

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