Too much screen time may slow toddlers' brain development

Other studies have advised limits on screen time for children and teenagers to help boost their well-being

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's Pediatrics, examined 47 boys and girls aged between three and five.

To start, participants completed a cognitive test, while their parents completed a survey called ScreenQ that informed researchers how much time and what type of content their children were using screens to view.

Higher ScreenQ scores were associated with reduced integrity of white matter in the brain, which affects organization and myelination, the process of forming a myelin sheath around a nerve to allow nerve impulses to move more quickly, in tracts that involve the executive function of language and other literacy skills.

The researchers assessed the children for screen time and performed diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging scans - a class of MRI scans created to probe structural changes - and found those with higher screen scores had lower brain white matter integrity in regions involving language, executive function and literacy skills.

From the past decade, the usage of screens in the form of TV, tablets, smartphones has increased by 90 % among children below one year of age.

"This study raises questions as to whether at least some aspects of screen-based media use in early childhood may provide sub-optimal stimulation during this rapid, formative state of brain development", says John Hutton, MD, director of the, Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children's and lead author of the study.

The first five years of life is the critical time when these brain connections are rapidly developing, Hutton explained.

Hutton said good brain development really depends on practicing important real-world experiences, such as reading, playing outside, interacting with caregivers, and imaginative play.

The results showed that children who used more than the AAP's recommended amount of screen time, of an hour a day without parental interaction, had more disorganized, underdeveloped white matter throughout the brain. Associations have also been shown between excessive screen time and language delay, poor sleep, impaired executive function, and a decrease in parent-child engagement.

The AAP advises designated shared times when screens are banned - such as during dinner or in the auto - as well as media-free locations such as bedrooms. The children also took tests to evaluate their cognitive ("thinking") skills. During this time they also develop empathy, the ability to understand emotion, and "build stamina to navigate personal situations", he said. Parents of children 18-24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they are seeing.

"From my perspective, the biggest problems we are seeing is a lot less social engagement with children", she said. "Kids who report five hours of screen time could have parents who use 10 hours of screen time". According to another recent study in JAMA Pediatrics that analyzed prior research on screen time in kids from ages 4 to 18, TV and video games in particular, were associated with worse academic performance, especially in teens. "We're starting to see a lot more children that have these very dysfunctional social patterns, and they're more responsive to media". "We need to formulate national guidelines for permissible screen time for children".

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