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  • MRIs Show How Too Much Screen Time Can Slow A Child's Brain Development

    A study shows how screen time for kids ages 3 to 5 can damage a child's brain.
    by Rachel Perez .
MRIs Show How Too Much Screen Time Can Slow A Child's Brain Development
  • Thanks to the portability of tablets and smartphones, screens are everywhere, prompting many experts to ask parents to moderate or even ban screens, especially for babies and toddlers. Their fear is how this excessive screen use affects a child's brain and behavior during his formative years.

    The latest is a small study by researchers from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. They had scanned the brains of children ages 3 to 5 and given cognitive tests. The kids’ parents had also answered questions about kids’ access to screens, the type of content they view, and whether an adult sits with them and talks about what they are watching, also called “dialogic” interaction. (Click here why dialogic interaction is vital to kids’ development.)

    The study’s data show that young kids have access to screens at least two to five hours a day. Based on the MRIs, kids who used screens more than the recommended one hour a day and without parental involvement had lower levels of “white matter integrity.”

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    How screen time may affect a child's brain, according to study

    What is white matter? Think of it as the brain’s internal communications network, allowing electrical signals to move from one area of the brain to another. White matter integrity, or how well organized and developed a brain’s white matter fibers and sheaths are, is associated with cognitive function, which forms as kids learn language. Lack of organization and development in the brain’s white matter can slow down the brain’s processing speed, MIT Technology Review explains.


    A child’s brain develops most rapidly, “soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life,” during the child’s first five years. Media from screens can still be part of it, but it should not be dominating kids’ early experiences.

    Based on the study's findings, excessive screen time seems to have slowed the kids’ brain development, affecting particularly the child’s literacy, language, and cognitive skills. 

    “Perhaps screen time got in the way of other experiences that could have helped the children reinforce these brain networks more strongly,” lead author Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, tells CNN.

    Human interactions that encourage speaking, social interactions and conversations, and play are vital in a child’s developing thinking, problem-solving, and other executive skills. Continually engaging in parent-and-child activities such as reading, singing, making art, and even going outdoors reinforces and organizes the connections in your brain.

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    Screen time guidelines for your kids

    The study is the first to document associations between screen time and brain structure. While its findings are preliminary and no conclusion can be made yet, It could pave a path to better understand the links between excessive screen time with poor language and literacy skills, difficulty in paying attention and thinking clearly, among others.

    The study is also an opportunity to rethink how you and your family use screens. The AAP screen time guidelines are as follows:

    • Avoid the use of screen media other than video-chatting for babies younger than 18 months
    • Choose high-quality programming if parents want to introduce media to children 18 to 24 months. Watch it with your child to help them understand what they’re seeing.
    • Limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs for children ages 2 to 5. Again, parents should watch with their kids to help them understand and apply what they see to the world around them.
    • Designate media-free times together and media-free areas at home.
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    The he World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have set recommended screen time hours to help parents navigate today’s digital world. But with technology as a way of life for almost everyone now, it’s up to the parent to decide what screen time rules work best with their family. And it might be time to take those guidelines seriously.

    Click here to know more about screen time guidelines.

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