In recent years it’s become commonplace to see younger and younger children — including babies and toddlers — saddled up to an iPad, a TV, a laptop or just getting grabby-hands over a smartphone. In what researchers of a new study on toddler’s screen time call “a vast uncontrolled experiment,” screens have been fully integrated into our work, homes and our child-rearing lives without much fanfare (and without much clarity on what it does to all of our brains.)
Now, it looks like we’re starting to get closer to that clarity — and, shocking no one, there’s yet another case for being smart and thoughtful about screen time for little ones. According to the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics on Monday, preschool-aged children who use screens more than the recommended one hour a day without a parent, per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), had less-developed white matter — which is a necessary part of the brain that supports cognitive, language and literacy skills.
“Recent evidence suggests that screen-based media use poses neurobiological risks in children, yet its associations with early brain development are largely unknown, particularly during the dynamic span of development before kindergarten,” lead author Dr. John S. Hutton, the director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital writes in the introduction. “Although sensory networks mature relatively early, those sensory networks for higher-order skills, such as language, executive function, multimodal association, and reading exhibit protracted development.”
Using an MRI, researchers were able to look at the brains of the 27 girls and 20 boys (all ages 3 to 5, from English-speaking, middle and upper-middle class backgrounds) and assess the developmental integrity of the white matter in their brains. The kids were also given cognitive tests while their parents provided information on their relationship with screens: How often are they in front of a screen? Are they watching it alone or with a parent who was there to talk about the content? What exactly are they watching (educational material, music, violent fights)? The parents’ answers yielded a score, called a ScreenQ, between zero and 26 — a zero meant that the parents followed the guidelines perfectly while a 26 meant they followed none of the guidelines.
(The average ScreenQ score, if you’re curious, was about nine — with a range from one to 19. Researchers also noted that 60 percent of children surveyed had their own portable device and 41 percent of them had a TV or a portable device in their bedrooms.)
Again, as this study only really dealt with middle and upper-middle class families, there’s a lot to be noted about the complexities of raising kids when you don’t have the same access to childcare, paid time off or other resources that might make it easier to build out a plan for managing screens in your home. After all, in 2019, it’s a lot harder to go totally screen-free than it is to find a screen with something vaguely educational. Not to mention that schools (especially in lower-income communities) aren’t necessarily being given the tools or support to implement reduced screen time in their classrooms.
But, as the AAP suggests, it’s necessary for parents of toddlers and young children to do what they can to take an active and mindful role in approaching their family’s relationship with screens. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal, but instead about managing screen time for each stage of development and knowing that the screen-use that’s acceptable (and even engaging) for an older child is vastly different than what will work for a 3-5-year-old.