Dear Doctor: My husband and I are pretty strict about screen time with our kids. I read about a new study that indicates that screen time actually changes a child’s brain. Is this true? How much screen time is OK?
Dear Reader: As parents ourselves, we share your struggle when it comes to limiting screen time. But considering how we adults often struggle to put down the phone or step away from the computer, it’s not surprising that our kids face the same challenges.
Screens are so instantly absorbing, it’s all too easy to hand a fussy baby or toddler a phone while juggling several other tasks. And with so much social interaction now shifted to the online world, tweens and teens can feel cut off from their peers without screen access. Add in the increasing amount of schoolwork now done on computers and online, and it can feel like a screen-centric life is all but inevitable.
A recent study supports a growing body of research that suggests it’s time to rethink our acceptance of screens. Published last November in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, it found a link between screen time and a drop in language and literacy skills among young children. Not only that, brain scans found that kids who spent a lot of time in front of a screen experienced certain changes to the physical structures of their brains.
The researchers began by assessing the cognitive abilities of 47 children between the ages of 3 and 5. They also gathered detailed information about screen habits from the children’s parents. MRI scans of the children’s brains revealed that those who exceeded the recommended one hour of screen time per day had lower levels of development and organization in brain tissues known as white matter. White matter is made up of long nerve fibers surrounded by fatty protective tissues, and it plays a key role in language development and cognitive skills.
The children with higher screen time and structural brain changes also had poorer outcomes on tests measuring language and literacy skills. This all sounds dire, so it’s important to note that this was a small study with a narrow scope. The authors noted that the question of screen time for children deserves further study.
As for how much screen time is OK, that’s the big question right now. According to updated guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 18 months should have no screen time at all, other than video chatting with parental supervision. For children between ages 2 and 5, the AAP recommends a maximum of one hour of high-quality programming per day, watched with a parent present to explain what they are seeing. After age 6, the advice is consistent limits that maximize physical and mental health, as well as face time with family and friends.
It’s important that as parents, we lead by example and step away from our own screens.
(Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)