Children Brain Development: Effects of screen time on child development

Henrietta Brewer
November 7, 2019

A new study using brain scans showed that the white matter in the brains of children who spent hours in front of screens wasn't developing as fast as it was in the brains of kids who didn't.

It's in the white matter of the brain where language, other literacy skills, and the process of mental control and self-regulation develop, researchers say.

They also assessed children on standard cognitive tests and found that higher screen scores appeared associated with lower expressive language, the ability to quickly name objects, and literacy skills.

The researchers assessed the children for screen time and performed diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging scans - a class of MRI scans created to probe structural changes - and found those with higher screen scores had lower brain white matter integrity in regions involving language, executive function and literacy skills.

Gupta and her colleagues Sandeep Grover, professor of psychiatry, Prabhjyot Malhi, professor of pediatrics, and researcher Nimran Kaur had in a paper in the journal Indian Pediatrics last month referred to a paucity of data on screen time prevalence among under-five children in India.

Importantly, cognitive testing was not different among children with more or less screen time when correcting for household income.

Although TV has been around for decades, Hutton pointed out that the recent explosion of portable screen devices has greatly increased the time kids spend looking at them. The "ScreenQ" assessment included the child's access to screens (such as the location), their frequency of use, the content (such as educational or violent content), and whether the caregiver watched with their child and talked with them about what they were watching.

In fact, an AAP report published last year recommended that doctors prescribe a daily dose of playtime for kids, noting that average playtime among USA kids has dropped by as much as 25% during the last 30 years, while screen time has increased significantly.

"It used to be that the TV was in the living room and kids would watch it ... but now with portable devices, the screens literally follow kids everywhere", said Hutton, adding that technology has advanced so much faster than the research.

"This is a very exciting study because it links digital media use behavior with observed and measured brain differences", Dillon Browne, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, told CTV News in an email.

A lack of development of those "cables" can slow the brain's processing speed; on the other hand, studies show that reading, juggling or learning and practicing a musical instrument improves the organization and structure of the brain's white matter.

Hutton agrees. "It's not that the screen time damaged the white matter", he said, adding that what could be occurring is that screen time is too passive for brain development.

Avoid screen time for at least an hour before bedtime.

18-24 months-only short periods of high-quality screen time (ex: Sesame Street).

"These are tracks that we know are involved with language and literacy", Hutton said, "And these were the ones relatively underdeveloped in these kids with more screen time". It was more involved with the language and literacy skills of the children. Parents should see the media together with the children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.

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