How Does Screen Use Affect Children’s Brains?

How Does Screen Use Affect Children’s Brains?

Technology screen use and how much is ok for kids is an ongoing dilemma for parents.

Children today are growing up in a world dominated by technology.

So much technology – TV, tablets, smartphones, computers – is available to children of all ages.

How much is too much?

Opinions vary widely, from zero screen use below a certain age, to ‘open season’ at any age.

Most parents just try to do the best they can.

How Does Screen Use Affect Children’s Brains?

The US National Institute of Health has released the first results of its landmark study. They show technology and screen use can change the structure of the brain.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study is the largest long-term research into brain development and child health in the United States.

The goal of the study is to understand how childhood experiences affect a child’s brain development.

The experiences included are: sports; sleep patterns; smoking; social media; and video games.

How Is The Study Performed?

Gaya Dowling, one of the study’s researchers, appeared on 60 Minutes to discuss the preliminary results.

More than 11,800 children, aged between 9 and 10, were invited to join the ABCD study.

The researchers track the children’s biological and behavioural development through adolesence into young adulthood.

The study looks at brain scans of the children over a 10-year period, to determine what screen use actually does to their brains.

Brain scans on children who used screens for seven or more hours a day showed premature thinning of the cortex in the brain.

The cortex is divided into four parts; each section is responsible for processing different types of sensory information.

Children who used screens for more than two hours a day also scored lower on thinking and language tests.

The long-term study will follow the participants for a decade.

As a result, by the end of the study, we should understand more about the impact of screen-time on the developing brain.

As well as the impact on brain structure, researchers hope the long-term results will provide more insight into whether screens are addictive.

Why Is This Research Important?

Dramatic changes in brain structure and function take place in adolescence.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, scientists are now able to study this period of brain development safely.

The researchers hope to see how social, behavioural, academic and health outcomes are affected by other factors (such as sports, sleep and drugs).

By following brain development in participants over a 10-year period, researchers hope to be able to see how changes affect brain development as the participants grow.

For example, will smoking or drug use change how the brain develops? Does increased screen use have an impact on brain function?

The length of the study should give scientists a much clearer insight into adolescent brain development.

Recommended Limits On Screen Use For Your Children 

This might not be particularly helpful, or reassuring, for those raising children right now.

You cannot delay your parenting for 10 years until the study has been concluded.

So how do you know whether or not you’re making the right choices when it comes to screen time and your children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents of infants and toddlers prioritise free, unstructured play over technology.

Parents can introduce high quality educational programs when children are around 18 months old. They should watch the media with their children to make sure they understand what they are viewing .

Problems begin when technology begins to replace normal play, interaction and exploration of the real world.

Older children and adolescents can have positive experiences with technology.

It’s important, however, for parents to be actively involved in helping children or teens to navigate the world of technology.

Setting Healthy Screen Use Limits For Your Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following techniques to introduce and maintain healthy screen use in your family:

  • Give it some thought. Don’t keep doing what you’re doing just because you’re already doing it. Do some research, then discuss, as a family, how you could make the recommendations work. Every family is unique; what works for one won’t necessarily work for another.
  • Set limits. As parents, you have the responsibility of setting boundaries for your children. Know who they’re talking to online and what apps they use. Talk about cyber safety and check in regularly.
  • Prioritise unplugged time. Make sure your children have plenty of time to immerse themselves in unstructured, creative play. Build plenty of screen-free time into each day; this is particularly important for younger children.
  • Enjoy some family screen time. Get involved with your kids as they engage with screens. Watch movies as a family, play video games together, and engage with what your kids are doing online.
  • Don’t be a hypocrite. Make sure you are modelling a healthy attitude towards screens. If you spend eight hours a day glued to your phone, you won’t have a leg to stand on when you tell your kids to log off.
  • Create tech-free zones. Set family rules that make certain places or times tech-free. Family and social gatherings, the dinner table and bedrooms become tech-free zones. The rules should apply to adults, too. They protect quality family time, promote better eating habits, and encourage healthy sleep.

How do you promote healthy screen habits in your home?

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Fiona Peacock is a writer, researcher and lover of all things to do with pregnancy, birth and motherhood (apart from the lack of sleep). She is a home birth advocate, passionate about gentle parenting and is also really tired.

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