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A New Study Links Screen Time to Brain Changes and Slower Development

A new study suggests that increased screen time could detrimentally change the very brain structure of preschoolers. Remain calm.

Just months after JAMA Pediatrics published its headline-grabbing study on screen time and child development — “Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children” — millions of American parents found themselves in the impossible bind of trying to regulate kids’ screen time while observing the strictures of the coronavirus lockdown. Working parents have had little choice but to lean on screen time and educational entertainment to keep toddlers occupied and engaged during the long days of quarantine.

Before you go into a screen-free panic, take note that the findings aren’t as cut-and-dried, or dire, as the headline might lead you to believe. The study is relatively small, far from definitive, and, most important, in no way offers parents a clear path forward. Is it a study worth reading? Of course. But also, you’re doing just fine.

What this new research suggests about screen time and its effects on preschooler brain structure can sound alarming. More screen time meant lower expressive language, less ability to rapidly name objects, and decreased literacy skills. There were also physical changes to the brain — specifically lower brain white matter integrity in a portion of the brain directly impacting language and literacy skills.

To understand how screen time might affect development in the language centers of the brain, researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital gave MRIs to 47 preschool-aged children. In addition to the brain imaging, participants also completed a battery of literacy and language assessment. The brain scans and test scores were compared to a measure of screen access, frequency of use and content gleaned from a 15-item screen time questionnaire linked to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) screen time guidelines.

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What researchers found was that children who participated in screen time beyond the AAP guidelines had “lower microstructural integrity of brain white matter tracts supporting language and emergent literacy skills.” Moreover, those brain changes were consistent with the lower scores in literacy and language assessment tests among children who received more than the recommended screen time.

And while researchers note that their findings seem consistent with other studies that suggest screen time can be damaging to children there are some important caveats to the research. For one the sample size of 47 children is hardly representative of a larger population. Additionally, researchers readily admit that their study has no way to tease out related reasons for their results.

“A critical question is whether neurobiological differences are directly associated with properties of screen-based media itself,” researchers posited. “Or indirectly associated with differences in human interactive (eg, shared reading) time, which tends to decrease with greater use.”

It’s also important to acknowledge that while researchers found brain changes, there was no way of knowing what those changes might mean for preschoolers’ developmental outcomes. In short, without a longitudinal study, there is nothing in the study that might suggest children with more screen time are doomed to lives of illiteracy.

The fact is that social and societal norms have always had the opportunity to change the course of normal childhood development. When children in 19th-century America wore long gowns for the first 18 months or so of their childhood, they rarely learned to crawl. Instead, they log-rolled when they required mobility. And when it became the norm to place children on their back to sleep, babies’ ability to roll over was delayed by about a month on average, leading to the creation of tummy time. If they had MRI machines in 1842, they probably would have found that learning to crawl early changed the brains of children. It sure did.

That’s all to say that yes, big social changes like the increased availability and access of screens for children may, in fact, be changing their bodies and their development. But that doesn’t mean that those developmental changes mean worse outcomes for those children and society at large. It also doesn’t mean there is no way to address those changes without simply doing away with every screen in the house.

After all, if screen time is affecting development, it’s because parents are talking and reading less to their children. So the good news is: Parents don’t need to strictly limit screen time, as much as they should do more talking and reading with kids — and much, much more of that is happening in households now too.

What stories on screen time fail to take into account is that screens are often needed structural support for parents who are already overburdened. For instance, my children get about an hour and a half of screen time every day after school. Not because I’m neglectful, but because I work from home and I need them to be occupied when they get off the bus so I can finish my workday.

Screen time is a tool for many parents. And when studies like the one just published in JAMA are used to demonize screen time, parents can feel attacked and guilty and even more stressed out. Raising kids without screens in a world that demands so much from parents and insists on screen use for cultural relevance is a wildly unreasonable expectation. Parents should not feel guilty using a tool that has been given to them. Particularly when that tool is more affordable than childcare and there’s very little enthusiasm to give parents any meaningful social supports that would make screen time unnecessary.

That said, it makes sense that some parents might be wary. That’s okay too. If parents are motivated to reduce their children’s screen time, then there’s absolutely no reason to not follow AAP guidelines. Those guidelines suggest no screens for children under 18-months (aside from video chatting) and limiting screen time to an hour a day of co-viewed programming until kids are 2 years old.

But for parents who find themselves with few alternatives, studies like those out of Cincinnati Children’s hospital should be considered, but not stressed over. The most important thing parents can do for a kid is to show them love. That has never changed.