Health & Science

Screen Time Is Changing Your Baby’s Brain, Study Shows

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A new pediatric study found that preschoolers’ brains were significantly different depending on how much screen time they were given. Children who used screen media more than the amount recommended by the AAP were found to have lower structural integrity in areas of the brain that support language and literacy skills as well as self-regulation abilities. Naturally, any impact on the actual structure of our kids’ brains is alarming to parents — as it should be. 

In the study, conducted at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, 47 otherwise healthy children from age 3 to 5 underwent cognitive testing and brain imaging, while their parents completed a survey about their children’s screen usage. The survey measured aspects of screen usage such as access to screens, frequency of use, content viewed, and coviewing—key domains laid out by the AAP recommendations. The children’s ages, genders, and household incomes were controlled for.

Results of the parent survey indicating screen-based media use above the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines were associated with weakened white matter, which is the brain tissue that forms connections between brain cells and the rest of the nervous system and impacts organization and the speed at which impulses move through the brain. Also impacted were areas that involve language and other literacy skills. Kids with excessive screen time also tested lower on the ability to quickly name objects, and had lower liery skills and use of expressive language (the ability to communicate wants and needs).

The research did not determine exactly how screen usage changed children’s brains, or how the changes impact their development. However previous research, like a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics that found use of a mobile device can delay expressive language in 18-month-olds, points to a likely connection between screen use and cognitive or developmental issues. 

The researchers behind the Cincinnati study stress that further study is needed on the early childhood period of rapid brain development. As study author Dr. John Hutton said, “While we can’t yet determine whether screen time causes these structural changes or implies long-term neurodevelopmental risks, these findings warrant further study to understand what they mean and how to set appropriate limits on technology use.”

For the best existing guidelines, the AAP’s recommendations on screen usage are very thorough, and include:

  • No screen time for babies under 18 months old, except for video chatting.
  • For 18-24 month olds, some screen media may be introduced carefully while parents watch alongside them.
  • 2-5 year olds’ screen use should be limited to 1 hour a day of high-quality programming, preferably with parents’ coviewing.
  • Family rules should include screen-free times such as dinner or driving, and screen-free spaces such as bedrooms.

In reality, of course, many parents depend on some strategic iPad or TV time to get the breaks that they need when caring for young children. As mother Parven Kaur divulged on Common Sense Media, sometimes turning on just a few minutes of an entertaining children’s video is all you need to de-stress and switch gears. She recommends the following ways to keep babies’ screen time to a realistic minimum: never use the screen as a babysitter or replacement for the human interaction that helps babies thrive; set a timer for a few minutes and stick to it; make use of video chatting with loved ones for a nice occasional break for yourself and baby; and always take care to select age-appropriate, high-quality content.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.