A new study about screen time has parents worrying about brain development—but here's why you shouldn't panic
With new headlines on the topic nearly every week it can seem like the science on screen time is constantly changing—and that's because, just like our children's brains, the science is developing all the time. The newest study seeks to answer the question all parents wonder about: Are the brains of children exposed to screen time different from the brains of those who aren't?
A new study out of the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center published this latest study JAMA Pediatrics suggests that they can be, but that doesn't mean all screen time is detrimental or that parents should feel guilty if they need to put on a cartoon for a few minutes.
Researchers asked 47 parents to fill out a detailed questionnaire about how much their 3-to-5-year-olds watched screens, whether the kids had a TV in their bedrooms, whether they watch violent content, how much supervision they have while viewing, etc. Then they had the 47 children complete some cognitive tests (vocabulary, early pre-literacy skills and the like). Finally, they let the kids watch a video while they underwent an MRI (which sounds super hard for wiggly little ones). Through the scans, they examined the children's white matter, the fibers that connect nerve cells and get thicker and more efficient with use.
The result, as the scientists expected, was that kids who had more screen time had less overall white matter (when the statistical analysis controlled for age and income level). They were particularly underdeveloped in the areas associated with executive function, which also support language and literacy. That underdevelopment also showed up in the cognitive testing.
Please, don't go tossing the kid's iPad in a river (we mean, the electronics recycling center!) or loading up on guilt because that ship has sailed and it's permanently fused to their hands. Consider the fact that last month, the very same journal published a study saying active screen time may even benefit children. Plus, this current study only shows correlation, not causation. What may be causing these results is that children who get more screen time are probably also getting less of their caregiver's time talking and interacting, because there are only so many hours in the day.
"It's all about experience," lead author John S. Hutton, MS, MD, told the New York Times. "Did screen time interfere with something that would have been constructive—reading, playing, talking?" Those kinds of activities are what reinforce the connections in young brains and help them develop the white matter they need.
The study is also just a snapshot of young brains before they are even in kindergarten. The studies' authors acknowledge that without looking at the children over time, we can't know if this one moment of relative underdevelopment continues or if children's brains eventually catch up when they enter school.
Hutton and his coauthors hope that this is just the first of other studies that can help form a complete picture of the impact of digital devices on our children. In the meantime, you can follow the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines on screen time. You can also make sure to play and talk to your children when you can.
Just don't beat yourself up if the only way you can take more than a 30-second shower is to turn on Daniel Tiger. Seriously, where do we sign up for a study on the benefits of having a mom who gets to wash her hair?