More disturbing research about the effects of screen time on the developing brain

Regular readers of the blog know I have written before about the potential effects of screen time on brain development. I think it’s an important issue and represents a kind of ongoing experiment in our children for which we don’t know the results. But what we do know is that excessive screen time is bad for development. The problem is we don’t know what “excessive” means in this situation. This new study brings further information to the question. The somewhat ominous title is: “Associations between screen-based media use and brain white matter integrity in preschool-aged children.”

The authors used MRI scanning, a way of imaging the brain in detail, to assess the fine details of brain structure in children who were chronically exposed to more screen time than that recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (You can find the AAP recommendations here.) They studied 47 children ages 3 to 5 years. That’s not a huge number, but it’s still quite a few, considering the cost and difficulties in doing MRIs on young children. You don’t need to be a developmental neurologist to understand the implications of the findings:

In this cross-sectional study of 47 healthy prekindergarten children, screen use greater than that recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines was associated with (1) lower measures of microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills and (2) corresponding cognitive assessments.

Although this is a small study, the take-home message to me is to take seriously the recommendations of the AAP regarding screen time for small children, certainly until we know more about what this vast, uncontrolled experiment in our children — the proliferation of screens in our daily lives — represents.


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