Last updated on Jun 22nd, 2021 at 12:29 pm

Whether it’s the TV, a phone of an iPad, the more screen time young children have the more negative the effect on their brain structure…

It may seem like hard work keeping young children entertained, especially when it’s all too easy to turn on the TV. However, screen time comes at a cost.

How screen time dumbs down kids

New research has found that young children who have more screen time have lower structural integrity of white matter tracts in parts of the brain.

These are the parts of the brain that support language and literacy skills, imagery and executive function – the process involving mental control and self-regulation.

“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,” says John Hutton, MD, director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Centre at Cincinnati Children’s and lead author of the study.

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The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre study assessed screen time in terms of American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) recommendations, which takes into account time spent in front of screens, time spent with portable screen devices (like mobile phones), and who children are with and how they interact when they are looking at screens.

Why some parents are banning screen time

How much screen time should you allow?

There is no reason why you have to allow screen time, but if you do, the AAP recommends the following limits:

  • Children younger than 18 months – No screen time other than video-chatting.
  • Children 18 to 24 months of age – Parents should only choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages two to five years – Screen time limit of one hour per day of high-quality programmes. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

The APP also recommends designating media-free times, like family dinner and driving, and recommends setting media-free locations at home, such as kids’ bedrooms.

The study

Dr Hutton’s study involved 47 healthy children – 27 girls and 20 boys – between three and five years old, and their parents.

The children completed standard cognitive tests followed by diffusion tensor MRI, which provides estimates of white matter integrity in the brain.

The researchers gave parents a 15-item screening tool, the ScreenQ, which reflects AAP screen-based media recommendations. ScreenQ scores were then statistically associated with cognitive test scores and the MRI measures, controlling for age, gender and household income.

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The impact of too much screen time

What happens when kids get more screen time than they should?

The study found a significant link between higher ScreenQ scores (higher amount of screen time) and lower expressive language, the ability to rapidly name objects (processing speed) and emergent literacy skills.

Higher ScreenQ scores were also associated with lower brain white matter integrity, which affects organisation and myelination – the process of forming a myelin sheath around a nerve to allow nerve impulses to move more quickly – in tracts involving language executive function and other literacy skills.

“Screen-based media use is prevalent and increasing in home, childcare and school settings at ever younger ages,” says Dr Hutton. “These findings highlight the need to understand effects of screen time on the brain, particularly during stages of dynamic brain development in early childhood, so that providers, policymakers and parents can set healthy limits.”

Moms: How to help your child decrease screen time

Source: Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Centre via

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