The question is whether or not screen time is having an impact on kids’ brains. A new study finds that kids who spend a lot of time playing games have less of the brain’s white matter — critical for thinking and language skills.
However, pediatricians emphasize that this early-life experience does not cause “brain damage.” It’s important to limit screen time and choose high-quality media, viewing it with children when possible, as well as having educational toys.
1- Lack of Social Interaction
Young children learn best through observation and experience. They need plenty of unstructured play with adults and other children to develop social skills, self-respect, and creativity. Those who spend too much time on screens miss out on these opportunities and may have poorer mental health later in life.
Research has shown that screen time inhibits children’s ability to read faces and develop emotional empathy, two critical components of healthy development. Face-to-face interactions are the only way kids can learn to recognize non-verbal emotional cues from others and respond appropriately.
Heavy screen use can also cause mood disorders like depression or anxiety. The researchers found that children who reported being heavy users of screens were twice as likely to have internalizing problems like depression or anxiety two years later than those who were not heavy screen users. They also had different brain structure patterns than those who did not have these symptoms.
The study analyzed both parent-reported screen time and power spectral density data from EEG during MRI scans of the children. Frequent screen use in kids correlated with reduced connectivity in emotion regulation and decision-making brain regions, as shown in scans. There were also fewer white matter connections in these areas. White matter connects brain regions, supporting cognitive function through communication pathways.
Frequent screen use in children can reduce white matter in these brain regions, potentially impacting cognitive test scores. The children also had slower information processing speeds, fewer impulse control abilities, and weaker memory.
Parents can help to prevent this by limiting their children’s screen time, particularly before bed. Blue light from screens can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm, affecting sleep signal transmission by suppressing melatonin production.
Parents set a good example by reducing screen time and watching shows with kids for meaningful discussions. Provide engaging content and activities that promote exercise, communication, creativity, problem-solving skills, and the use of educational toys to enhance learning.
2- Poor Attention Span and Focus
Unsurprisingly, kids who spend hours on their devices have trouble concentrating and paying attention in school or with their parents. The problem is the screen is often displacing other activities that could be more beneficial to children’s mental and physical well-being, like socializing with family, playing outside, reading, or doing homework.
Unlike the world around us, screens constantly provide new and exciting stimuli through flashing images, sounds, and action – and these rapid changes can be hard for our brains to handle. Even when the content is educational, the constant stream of new information can make it difficult to focus and remember what’s been learned. Resisting immediate notifications is challenging, as they draw us back into the electronic world with their buzzes, beeps, and chimes.
A thorough screen time study discovered that children exposed to more TV, online games, and online content struggle with focus. The study followed more than 400 children from infancy to age 9. Researchers used MRIs to see how screen time affects the brain’s white matter tracts, which are responsible for executive functions like planning and impulse control. The more time a child spends on screens, the more disorganized and underdeveloped the white matter tracts become.
In addition, the researchers looked at EEG data from the children’s brains. The more time a child spends on screen, their slow-frequency brain waves (known as theta waves) decrease. These slow brain waves are associated with a lack of cognitive alertness.
To help your kids improve their attention span, try to limit their screen time and encourage other activities that require focus and concentration, such as reading, physical play, and creative activities. When they are allowed to watch a show or game, be sure to co-watch with them and interact with them about what they’re seeing. Engage them with questions, highlight show/game details, and reinforce their learning by repeating it afterward.
3- Lack of Creativity
Kids spending hours on devices miss chances to engage their imaginations and problem-solving skills. This can lead to an inability to think outside the box in class, and it could even affect their grades. “It’s a shame because children need imagination to be creative and solve problems,” says Kim Russ, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. “It’s important they have time to play and use their creativity instead of watching TV.”
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics, researchers used MRI scans to determine how much screen time young children had and how it affected their brains. They found that toddlers and preschoolers who watched more than the AAP’s recommended amount of one hour a day of screen time without parental interaction had disorganized, underdeveloped white matter in their brains. This is important because the white matter is part of the neural network responsible for learning and language development.
These kids also had less of a “myelin sheath” in their brains, which is the fatty insulation that helps electrical signals travel to and from different parts of the brain quickly and efficiently. These brain structure changes may explain why the children performed worse on thinking and language tests. The researchers also found that the children who spent a lot of time watching screens had more internalizing problems like depression and anxiety two years later than kids who didn’t spend so much time on their devices.
Maximize learning by capping screen time at one hour daily, excluding video calls with family. Opt for high-quality programming when watching with your child to help them better comprehend what they’re viewing.
Remember, too much screen time switches the brain into passive mode and takes away from other experiences that promote speech, social interaction, physical movement, motor skills, and problem-solving. It’s best to save this activity for the morning hours when your child’s mind is sharpest.
4- Reduced Brain Growth
Researchers have expressed concerns over children’s growing time watching TV and using smartphones and tablets. Their worry stems from the potential negative impact on brain development, especially in the youngest users. A recent study found that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who spend more than the recommended one hour per day in front of screens show a reduction in the integrity of their white matter. White matter consists of long nerve fibers that enable rapid transmission of electrical signals between different brain regions. These nerve fibers are sheathed in a fatty insulation called myelin. The more myelin they have, the faster and easier it is for the brain to process information.
In this JAMA Pediatrics study, diffusion tensor imaging MRI was combined with a screen time survey to gather data. This is a relatively new method of studying the structure and function of the brain. MRI scans showed that kids exceeding the recommended one-hour screen time had diminished white matter integrity. In particular, the white matter in the brain’s cortex was thinner than it should be. This is the part of the brain where thinking and reasoning occur.
The brain’s thinning in this area is worrisome as it occurs during critical developmental years. In addition, the study showed that kids who had more screen time tended to perform worse on cognitive tests.
This cortex thinning can be reversed, but it requires active engagement in non-screen activities. Encouraging children to interact with their environment and each other fosters speech, play, social interaction, and motor skills. They need to read, play, and hone their problem-solving abilities.
While completely preventing kids from screen exposure is unrealistic, parents can manage screen time and promote healthier alternatives. Instead of giving kids their tablets and phones, limit them to family viewing times in shared spaces. Watching high-quality programming together can help children understand what they are seeing and learning.