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Are Digital Screens Harming Kids’ Brains? One Study Raises Red Flags

Written by Karen Wittenburg, M.D. on Feb 11, 2019 8:06:00 AM

We know that too much screen time isn’t good for anyone, let alone kids. Too much time on digital devices has been linked to poor sleep patterns, behavioral issues, loss of social skills, obesity, and even violence, but the National Institutes of Health wanted to delve into this issue a little further and see what long-term effects, if any, screen time for kids might have on the actual structure of their brains. The results are concerning. 

Ongoing Study Seeks Answers

The study is currently ongoing, but within 10 years, more than 11,000 children who are currently aged 9 and 10 will be followed for information about how they use digital platforms. Doctors will observe how much time they experience in front of screens, how much the children feel it impacts them over the course of the study, and what outcomes they experience from their screen time. They’re seeking to determine if screens have an addictive nature and, if so, what type of damage addiction could cause.

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Early Findings Suggest Brains Affected

Early findings are extremely discouraging, especially considering how much time kids spend in front of devices. Authors of the study found that even children who spend as little as two hours per day in front of a screen could potentially see negative effects. Children who have more than two hours of screen time per day suffered lower test scores on material centered on language skills and thinking skills. Initial brain scan analyses of children participating in the study revealed that kids who spend more than seven hours per day on screens are likely experiencing a premature thinning of the cortex, the area of tightly-packed neurons which are responsible for processing sensory information. The cerebral cortex typically thins with age – usually around age 60 – and the result in adults is memory trouble and other processing problems. The areas of the cortex which seem to be the most affected by screen time are in the frontal lobe, which helps with impulse control, planning, organizing, prioritizing, and even making friends.

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Set Limits Now

While the study won’t be completed for another 10 years, initial findings show you should do what you can now to limit screen time for your kids – especially toddlers. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not allow children between the ages of 18 and 24 months to have any screen time and children older than 24 months should only experience limited screen time with the company of an adult. As children get older, you may find that it seems more difficult to limit screen time, but if these guidelines are put in place at an early age, the standard is set. 

Wittenburg_KarenDr. Wittenburg is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Clear Lake Clinic and Pasadena Clinic. Her clinical interests include breastfeeding, medical education, nutrition and health, children with disabilities, and mental health.



Topics: digital devices and kids brains, how screen time affects kids brains

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