Anderson Cooper, reporting for CBS’s long-running “newsmagazine” 60 Minutes, has dished on new data about screen time and the brain changes it triggers in children. On a protracted segment, the silver fox showed the MRI scans that prove extended exposure to screens and digital entertainment is altering the minds of kids. Those scans come from children enrolling in the National Institute of Health’s first major longitudinal study of the effects of screen time, drugs, and sports injuries on kid neurology. And it all sounded like a very big deal. Unfortunately, the report, which reached an audience of millions, didn’t dwell on the small stuff.
This is not to say that the report was precisely wrong, but that the vector of reporting — the notion that brains might be changed by exposure to screens — overwhelmed the facts of the story to such a degree that it was hard to focus on what the researchers were actually saying. Dr. Gaya Dowling of the National Institutes of Health told Cooper, “We don’t know if it’s being caused by the screen time. We don’t know if it’s a bad thing,” but the implication of the reportage remained clear.
It makes sense that Cooper and 60 Minutes are leaning into screen time reporting. As screens proliferate, parents are becoming more anxious about the hours kids spend in the blue glow of their TVs and tablets. At the same time, researchers are sounding the alarm. Some even say that screen time is this generation’s smoking: a seemingly harmless activity that will turn out to have dire long-term consequences. There is science to support an addiction metaphor. Some kids who spend more than two hours a day with screens score lower on “thinking and learning” tests.
Unfortunately, it remains unclear precisely what this means. Why? Because science takes time. Dr. Dowling can offer data, but is reticent to offer firm conclusions for good reason: We don’t have the information to support them. What does that mean for parents? Essentially that they have, in queueing up Netflix, made their kids part of a culture-wide experiment in childhood screen exposure. It could go well! It could also go very badly. It’s hard to say.
The fact that toddlers don’t want to give back a tablet playing wildly interactive apps is interesting, but there’s not a definitive best practice to be pulled from the wreckage of that observation. Discovering that a bunch of college students felt better about their life after limiting social media time to 30 minutes a day is great but doesn’t offer many insights to parents. And sure, it’s quite possible that screen time will change a child’s brain. But do you know what else will? Literally everything.
One researcher Cooper spoke with correlated the rise of cell phones with the rise of teen depression since the late 1990s. Okay. That’s really interesting and there might be something there. However, that’s not causation. It remains possible that life for teens has just gotten more depressing.
Part of the problem with the data on screen time is that there haven’t been any good longitudinal studies that show the effects of screen time over time. That’s important. And that’s why the NIH study is legitimately newsworthy. But even when the results from the study are in, sometime in the next decade, the data is unlikely to offer clear-cut solutions.
Should parents pay attention to the data? Absolutely. It’s important to make parenting decisions in the most informed way possible. But it’s also important to know what you know and to know what you don’t know. We don’t know that children’s brains are being reshaped by screen time. We also don’t know that their brains are not being reshaped by screen time. Parents who feel nervous about that are reacting appropriately.