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How to know that it is too much screen time for your kids’ and whether it is bad for their brain?
A generation ago, parents worried about the effects of television; before that, it was radio. Now the concern is “screen time,” a general term for the amount of time children, especially pre-teens and teens, spend interacting with televisions, computers, smartphones, digital pads, and video games. This age group was chosen particularly because screen time immersion rises sharply during adolescence, and because brain development accelerates then, too, as neural networks are pruned and consolidated in the transition to adulthood.
On last Sunday evening, CBS’ 60 Minutes on early results from the ABCD Study for (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development), a project financed by the National Institute of Health. The aim of the study is to reveal how brain development is affected by a variety of experiences, including substance use, concussions and screen time. 60 Minutes reported that heavy screen use was associated with lower scores on some aptitude tests, and accelerated “cortical thinning” – a natural process – in some children. But the data is preliminary, it is unclear whether the effects are lasting or meaningful.
Does screen addiction change the brain?
Yes, but so does every activity that children engage in: sleep, homework, playing soccer, arguing, growing up in poverty, reading, vaping behind the school. The brain of the adolescent changes continuously, or rewires itself, in response to daily experience and that adaptation continues until the early or mid-20s. What scientists want is to learn whether screen time, at some threshold, causes any measurable difference in adolescent brain structure or function and whether these differences are meaningful. Do they cause attention deficits, mood problems, or delays in reading ability?
Have any such brain differences been found?
Not convincingly. More than 100 scientific reports and surveys have studied screen habits and well-being in young people, looking for emotional and behavioral differences, as well as changes in attitude, such as in body image. In 2014, scientists from Queen’s University in Belfast reviewed 43 of the best-designed studies of this type. The students found that social networking allows people to broaden their circle of social contacts in ways that could be both good and bad, for instance by exposing young people to abusive content. The review’s authors concluded that there was “an absence of robust casual research” regarding the impact of social media on the mental well-being of young people.”
In short: The results of the studies have been mixed and contradictory.
Psychologists have also examined whether playing violent video games is connected to aggressive behavior. More than 200 such studies have been carried out; some researchers found a link, others have not. One challenge is identifying the direction of causality: Do children who play violent video games become aggressive or were they drawn to such content because they were aggressive from the start?
Even if scientists found solid evidence of a single measurable effect, if, for example, three hours of daily screen time were associated with an increased risk of being diagnosed with ADHD – such a clear association wouldn’t necessarily suggest there was any consistent, measurable difference in brain structure. Individual variation is the rule in brain development. The size of specific brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex, the rate at which those regions edit and consolidate their networks, and the variation in these parameters from person to person makes it all the more difficult to interpret findings. To address such obstacles, scientists need huge numbers of research subjects and a better understanding of the brain.
Isn’t that what NIH study aims to address?
Yes. The ongoing ABCD study expects to follow 11800 children through adolescence, with annual magnetic resonance imaging, to see if changes in the brain are linked to behaviors or health. The study began in 2013 and initially focussed on the effects of drug and alcohol use on the adolescent brain. Since then, the scope of the project has been expanded to include other targets such as the effects of brain injury, screen time, genetics and an array of “other environmental factors.”
The recently published paper provided an early glimpse of the anticipated results. A research team, based at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed brain scans from more than 4,500 preteens and correlated those with the children’s amount of screen time (as was reported by the children during filling up of the questionnaires) and their scores on language and thinking tests. Some of the heavy screen users scored appreciably below the curve on aptitude tests, others performed well.
In other words, the effects when measured may be good, or, more likely, not meaningful at all, until further research demonstrates otherwise.
You may use the comment field below and let us know your views on the article and how much time your kid(s) are engrossed with the screen on a daily basis. also please share whether you observed any relationship between their behavior and the types of content they watch on screen.