It’s no secret — screens aren’t the best babysitter for children. And now, a study that looks at screen time and children’s brain development shows, in blazing color, why they might be even worse for your kids than originally thought. In fact, the study, which was released in November 2019, indicates early screen use might actually impede your child’s brain development.
Pictures of Kids’ Brains After Years of Screens
The study, done by researchers at the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, showed actual images of five-year-old’s brains. Some of the kids experienced parents reading often to them, and little screen time. Other kids who’d had lots of screen time (more than one hour per day, the max recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the WHO) throughout early childhood.
The kids with more screen time developed less organized white matter than the kids who had less screen time and more one-on-one reading time. It’s the first study delivering neurobiological evidence for reading benefits versus screen detriments on preschool child’s brain development. And it showed up on the diffusion tensor images (DTI) in startling color areas of red and blue.
While it’s a small study (just 47 kids), and only provides an association between more screens and less white matter development, it’s one more compelling reason to maybe curb the screens in early childhood.
“This is important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years,” lead author Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, told CNN. “Kids who have more stimulating experiences that organize the brain are at a huge advantage when they get to school. And it’s really harder and harder for kids to catch up if they arrive behind.”
Screen Time and Children’s Brain Development: Why White Matter Matters
Brains are often referred to in terms of gray, rather than white, matter. Our brains actually have both, and the white matter starts increasing from birth and doesn’t stop until we reach the age of 20 or so.
White matter could be thought of as the brain’s go-between, making communication between different regions of the brain function quickly and efficiently. The intertwining network of white matter connects otherwise distant areas of the brain together for faster processing speed and learning. Without it, the brain would be like a group of people each separated by glass walls, with impeded cooperation and communication. White matter also assists in things like executive function, something children develop over time.
If more screen time leads to less white matter development (as the study cautiously indicates), the results might be truly detrimental. “When it came to screen time, kids who used screens more than one hour a day had poorer emerging literacy skills, less ability to use expressive language, and tested lower on the ability to rapidly name objects,” CNN reported.
Screens Reduce Reading Performance as Well
A comprehensive review in the Journal of Research in Reading found that reading on a screen isn’t even particularly effective for older kids in terms of learning.
The review of 33 studies concluded reading from screens had a negative effect on reading performance as opposed to reading an actual book. Even stranger was that students had a more realistic assessment of their own skills when reading a paper document. This only held true for non-fiction reading material, leading the Hechinger Report to remark, “go ahead and read Jane Austen on a Kindle.”
Don’t Go Over an Hour Per Day, and Read to Your Child
While it’s true this study regarding white matter development is small, it’s compelling. And, the solution is hardly controversial. There’s nothing wrong with limiting (or eliminating) screens for your young child. A daily storytime can be a relaxing and bonding activity for your family, as well as weekly trips to your local library.