Screen Time in Early Childhood: Impact on Brain Development and What Parents Can Do
In recent years, the use of screens by infants, toddlers, and preschoolers has seen a dramatic increase. This trend has raised concerns among experts regarding the potential impact of excessive screen time on the crucial early years of brain development. A recent study scanned the brains of children aged 3 to 5 and made a concerning discovery: children who spent more than the recommended one hour a day on screens without parental involvement exhibited lower levels of development in the brain's white matter. This area of the brain is essential for the development of language, literacy, and cognitive skills.
The First Study of Its Kind
The study, led by Dr. John Hutton, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, is groundbreaking in its findings. It's the first study to establish a link between increased screen use and adverse effects on brain structure and skills in preschool-aged children. These findings emphasize the critical importance of addressing screen time during the early years when the brain is undergoing rapid development.
The Significance of Early Brain Development
Dr. Hutton underscores the significance of the first five years of life for brain development. This period is when the brain is most plastic, absorbing information and forming strong connections that can last a lifetime. Thus, what children experience during these years can profoundly impact their cognitive development.
Excessive Screen Time: A Growing Concern
The study also highlights the concerning rise of excessive screen time among young children. The portability of screens allows them to follow children everywhere, from meals to bedtime, and even to the playground. This trend is particularly alarming because many children are exposed to screens from an early age, with some starting as young as two to three months old.
White Matter and Brain Development
The study utilized a specialized MRI technique known as diffusion tensor imaging to examine the brains of 47 preschool-aged children who had not yet started kindergarten. This imaging method provided insights into the brain's white matter, responsible for facilitating communication between different parts of the brain.
White matter acts like cables, connecting various brain regions, and is crucial for efficient brain function. A lack of development in these "cables" can slow down the brain's processing speed. In contrast, activities like reading, playing musical instruments, or learning new skills have been shown to enhance the organization and structure of white matter.
The Impact on Cognitive Skills
The study also assessed cognitive skills in these children, revealing that excessive screen time was associated with poorer emerging literacy skills, limited expressive language abilities, and lower performance on cognitive tests. While these findings are preliminary, they suggest that children who spend more time on screens may be at risk of developmental delays.
This view shows the three major tracts involved with language and literacy skills: the arcuate fasciculus, shaded in white, which connects brain areas involved with receptive and expressive language. The one in brown supports rapid naming of objects, and the one in beige, visual imagery. The blue color illustrates lower measures of white matter development in children using excessive screen time.
What Parents Can Do
To mitigate the potential negative effects of screen time, parents can follow guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Infants: Avoid screen exposure for children under 18 months, except for video chatting with loved ones.
- Toddlers: After the age of 2, toddlers can learn from interactive screens when parents watch and engage with them.
- Preschoolers: Quality educational content, such as "Sesame Street," can benefit children aged 3 to 5. However, parental involvement is essential in co-viewing and discussing the content.
Exploring Alternatives: Quiet Books
Keeping a child under 5 engaged and entertained while on the move can be quite the challenge. Often, it may seem like relying on screen time is the only viable option, especially during car rides or outings. However, there are innovative alternatives that not only capture a child's imagination but also offer valuable educational experiences. As endorsed by Oprah Daily and multi-award winning, our quiet books emerge as an excellent addition to your parenting toolkit. They offer exceptional portability, feature expert craftsmanship, and provide valuable educational content for your child's growth and development.
While this study sheds light on the potential consequences of excessive screen time in early childhood, more research is needed to fully understand the long-term effects. However, it underscores the critical role parents play in shaping their children's cognitive development during these formative years. Encouraging positive, interactive activities and limiting screen time can be vital steps toward ensuring healthy brain development in young children.
Hutton, J., Dudley, J & Horowitz-Krausm T. (2019). Screen Time and Brain Development in Young Children. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(12), 1199-1200. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3867