Children's hospital study: Excessive screen time changes brains of kids

iPhone SEs displayed at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California
iPhone SEs displayed at Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, California | Reuters/ Stephen Lam

New research out of a prominent children's hospital in Ohio has found that too much time in front of digital screens fundamentally changes parts of the brain.

Published in JAMA Pediatrics, researchers from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center conducted the study on 47 healthy local children ages 3 to 5 through cognitive testing and magnetic resonance imaging of their brains.

The research did not show how excessive use of digital devices where kids are in front of screens changed the brain, but it did reveal that skills like brain processing speed were affected.

“Screen-based media use is prevalent and increasing in homes, childcare and school settings at ever younger ages,” said Dr. John Hutton, who authored the study and is the director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

"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,” he said.

The researchers assessed screen time using the guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that children younger than 18 months should avoid all screen media except for video chatting and that parents should actively monitor digital media intake and watch it with their children.

"The children in the Cincinnati study completed standard cognitive tests and a special test called diffusion tensor MRI, which estimates white matter integrity in the brain," reported.

"Researchers gave the parents in the study a 15-item screening tool based on the AAP's media recommendations. Those scores were matched to the cognitive test scores and the MRI measures, controlling for age, gender and household income."

The research found that those who received higher scores on the screening tool were significantly associated with lower expressive language, ability to name objects quickly processing speed and early reading skills.

Higher scores also were linked with lower brain white matter integrity, which affects organization and myelination. Myelination is the process whereby myelin sheaths form around the nerves to allow impulses to move more quickly, in brain tracts involving language, executive function and other literacy skills.

“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,” Hutton stated.

He added that follow-up research is underway including a study showing the positive links between home reading practices and brain development in preschoolers, research that builds on other studies his team has published since 2015.

The study on very young children comes as psychologists have been warning for several years about the mental health crisis besetting teens and young adults.

A July 2017 article in Psychology Today documented that relevant survey data shows that approximately half of Generation Z, sometimes referred to as iGen, are addicted to their phones.

The article's author, Glenn Geher, chair of the psychology department at SUNY-New Paltz, conducted a study with one of his students in which he surveyed 200 students.

Fifty-nine percent of them reported having at some point been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, he noted.

Technology is partly to blame, he believes, considering: the kind of communication that takes place on it is often mean-spirited and hurtful, cell phones are indeed addicting, and technology takes kids away from outdoor activities, all of which compound the problem.

"A standard finding in the social psychological literature is that people act in a relatively anti-social manner when their identities are covered up — when they are acting anonymously," Geher said, adding how easy that is to do on the Internet.

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