The Impact of Screen Time on Brain Development

Children are becoming more accustomed to interacting with a screen on a daily basis, either through contact with an iPad, mobile phone or television.

As this trend continues to grow, researchers have performed numerous studies to determine if prolonged interactions with a screen negatively impacts brain development within children. The evidence remains largely inconclusive due to the small window of time in which screen interactions have occurred and been observed.

However, preliminary results indicate extensive screen time has a negative impact on your child’s cognitive abilities. Depending upon the age of your child, consider reducing the amount of screen time he or she is exposed to each day. If a child spends more than six or seven hours in front of a screen over the course of one day, it is probable that his or her ability to learn, understand and achieve academically will be impacted.

What are the side effects of prolonged screen time?

Research conducted at the National Institutes of Health shows children who spend more than seven hours in front of a screen per day have significant differences when undergoing an MRI as compared to children who experience less screen time. When a child spends a prolonged period in front of a screen, regardless of whether it is an iPad or a T.V., he or she prematurely experiences a thinning of the cortex. As this happens, numerous effects arise due to the underdeveloped nature of the child’s brain.

For example, children who spend up to two hours in front of a screen per day are more likely to underperform in an academic setting. Test scores are lower on both language tests and critical-thinking exams once a child experiences a premature thinning of the cortex. While preliminary research indicates a variety of factors also contribute to this thinning, a direct link exists between extended screen time and lower academic scores for children in all age groups.

In addition to impacting your child’s ability to perform well in an academic setting, extensive screen time can promote depression in some children. It contributes to the rise of obesity as well. If your child is prone to playing video games or watching television for several hours in lieu of playing outside, he or she may experience disrupted sleep patterns. Additionally, your child is more likely to overeat throughout the course of the day.

Finally, children who spend too much time in front of a screen often lack social skills due to limited interactions with other children. When a child engages with a screen, he or she lacks the ability to concentrate on other important aspects of life. This is detrimental when your child enters school, as he or she may struggle to communicate with or relate to other students. Children find it difficult to relate to others when their major social interactions occur with digital entities.

Can prolonged screen time affect teenagers?

Prolonged screen time does not solely affect young children, but it can have an adverse effect on your teenagers. These issues can appear in different ways. When your teenager spends an extended period of time scrolling through Instagram or looking at Twitter, he or she is experiencing an influx of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain responsible for feelings of desire, which can lead your child to develop feelings of depression. This manifests whenever your child feels as though someone on Instagram is living a more desirable life.

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If your teenager spends time looking at social media before going to bed each night, he or she is more likely to develop sleep disorders and depression. A study conducted at the University of California at San Diego indicates teenagers who increase screen time prior to bed are prone to both sleep disturbances and preliminary symptoms of depression.

Alternatively, teenagers and college-age students who spend less time on their phones and other electronic devices express a decrease in depressive thoughts and loneliness. This change can occur in a matter of three weeks or more. If you are worried about your teenager’s mental health, speak to him or her about reducing time spent on social media both before bedtime and throughout the day.

What is the recommended screen time for each age group?

Regardless of how old your child is, monitoring his or her screen time can help combat the negative affects arising from repeated television, phone or computer usage. Health care professionals at the University of Pennsylvania found teenagers and college-age students who limit their screen interaction to 30 minutes per day experience less frequent and intense spells of depression.

The amount of screen time your child should have varies depending upon age, according to research conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). The suggested screen time for each age bracket is as follows:

  • Children who are 18 months or younger must refrain from screen time altogether. This is challenging for parents, as many rely on television or games to occupy their child’s attention. Instead of relying on a screen, try to spend more time playing with your child. Not only is this healthier since it avoids screen time, but it gives you a good opportunity to bond with your child.
  • Children who are between 18 months and two years of age can have screen time when watching a program with their parent. The AAP does not recommend allowing your child to have independent screen time in this age bracket.
  • Children who are between two years of age and five years of age can have screen time for approximately one hour per day. This hour must be devoted to high-quality programming to ensure the interaction with the television, iPad or mobile phone has a positive impact on your child.

When your child is interacting with a screen, it is best to use this time for educational purposes to encourage cognitive development. Add an educational app to your mobile phone or iPad and allow your child to use this app as a way of developing his or her conversational skills. Educational games and television programs are available as well, and your child learns essential information through exposure to these alternatives. Your child can learn about colors, shapes and the alphabet through various educational television shows. This helps to combat the negative impact that incurs with repeated exposure to a screen.

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