How does a toddler’s brain change when it spends too much time in front of screens?

Babies who spend long periods of time staring at smartphones, tablets or televisions may be wiring their brains for the worse. 

In a fresh study, researchers used brain scans that showed white matter in the brains of toddlers who spent hours in front of screens was not developing as it was in those who did not.

White matter is where literacy skills, language, and other mental processes of control and self-regulation form, scientists say.

“What we think happens is that the development of these skills really depends on the quality of the experience, such as interaction with people, interaction with the world and playing,” lead researcher Dr. John Hutton explained,. Dr. Hutton is director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

The first five years of life are crucially important for the rapid development of brain connections, Hutton said.

“Some types of screen media may provide suboptimal stimulation to reinforce the connection of fibers in the brain and the skills they support, such as early language and literacy skills,” he expands.

Even though television has existed for decades, Hutton noted that the recent rise of portable screen gadgets has hugely increased the time children spend looking at screens.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents not to expose children under 18 months to screens at all.

Digital media for children from 18 to 24 months should only include programming of good quality that the child and parent watch together.

For ages 2 to 5, time in front of a screen should be reduced to 1 hour per day, and parents should watch the programs with their child. In addition, parents should also have times when screens are switched off and bedrooms should be entirely media-free.

For the research, Hutton and his team did MRI scans of the brains of 47 children, aged from 3 to 5. The kids also took cognitive evaluation testes for their cognitive (‘thinking”) abilities.

Parents had to fill out a questionnaire that showed their ScreenQ, which tells how much time their kids spend in front of screens, and how well they follow the AAP recommendations.

The research found that the higher the score, the lower the child’s ability to quickly name objects (a way to tell of a person’s mental-processing speed), and the lower their developing literacy skills.

In addition, higher ScreenQ scores were correlated with white matter development, specifically the mechanism that allows nerve impulses to move through the brain at a fast speed.

Hutton believes that the developing brain is in need of stimulation from other people and the true world in order to rise to its full potential.

“Young children really depend on relationships with people, interacting with the world, using all their senses,” Hutton said. “The more parents can keep their children off screens in early childhood and let them interact with people in the world, the better.”

Delayed brain development caused by staring at screens can be corrected for later, but it is harder for the brain to change the older you get, Hutton continued.

Reshma Naidoo, director of cognitive neuroscience at the Miami Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, said that spending time in front of screens is both passive and two-dimensions, which is not healthy for developing brains.

“From my perspective, the biggest problems we are seeing is a lot less social engagement with children,”  Naidoo said. “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 be examples for their children, she said.

“We need to shift their focus and engage with our children,” she added.

Parents who let their kids spend extensive periods of time in front of screens should start interacting more with their child rather than being passive in this way, she advised.

“But I strongly recommend limiting the amount of time that you spend in front of those environments,” Naidoo said.

Their report was published on November 4 in JAMA Pediatrics.

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