Screen Time May Be Reshaping Preschoolers' Brains

Excessive screen time is linked to lower development in brain’s white matter according to study

Gupta and her colleagues Sandeep Grover, professor of psychiatry, Prabhjyot Malhi, professor of pediatrics, and researcher Nimran Kaur had in a paper in the journal Indian Pediatrics last month referred to a paucity of data on screen time prevalence among under-five children in India.

A diffusion tensor MRI allows a good look at the white matter of the brain, responsible for organizing communication between the various parts of the brain's gray matter.

Higher ScreenQ scores were significantly associated with lower expressive language, the ability to quickly name objects (processing speed) and emerging literacy skills.

"This is the first study to document associations between higher screen use and lower measures of brain structure and skills in preschool-aged kids", said lead author Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

At this stage, children "require face-to-face interaction", said Anderson to reach developmental milestones including building language and social skills.

Their study - based on a sample of only 27 girls and 20 boys in the United States - has also suggested that children with higher periods of screen time on mobile phones or portable devices also have lower scores on language and literacy.

Scans done of these children revealed that those who were placed in front of a screen for more than one hour per day without their parents being involved had a problem with the white matter of their brains.

- From 18 to 24 months, introduce digital media by watching quality programming like PBS Kids or Sesame Workshop with children.


Also, parents should have times when screens are turned off, and bedrooms should be media-free.

Before the MRI, the children were given cognitive tests, while the parents filled out a new scoring system on screen time developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"So many people have smartphones and TVs - anecdotally, we know screen time may be significant in some homes", Gupta said. The doctor compared the part of the brain that was affected by the overuse of screen time, the white matter, to cables connecting different parts of the brain so that they can communicate.

"If your teenager is generally actively participating, getting homework done, having face-to-face interaction with family members and friends, and has extracurricular and physical activity ... parents can relax a little [about screen time] ... and reduce the guilt", Anderson advised. "We're starting to see a lot more children that have these very dysfunctional social patterns, and they're more responsive to media".

Parents need to set the example for their children, Naidoo said. "We need to formulate national guidelines for permissible screen time for children".

"Keeping kids off the screen or away from screens as much as possible - I think no parent really will regret that", said Hutton, who has also done extensive research on the benefits of early reading exposure. "While we still can not determine whether screen time causes these structural changes or involves long-term neurodevelopmental risks, these findings deserve further study to understand what they mean and how to set appropriate limits for the use of technology.".

"It's known that kids that use more screen time tend to grow up in families that use more screen time", Hutton said.

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