Wired: How Screen Exposure Impacts Young Brains

A new research study has revealed that excessive electronic device use may lead to decreased brain development among children, resulting in lower cognitive skills.

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Cell phones have gained notoriety in our culture. Whereas some years ago they were hailed as life-saving tools that children could use to further their education, today, a slew of studies and theories on the topic of mobile devices has toppled them from their pedestal. Parents, educators, and policymakers alike have grown weary of the potentially dangerous effects of excessive Internet surfing. Even if most children are not suffering from a true addiction to their electronic devices, the technology available to them may be altering their lifestyles considerably. Children growing up are exposed to the Internet and learn to make use of the resources it provides earlier in their lives than ever. Parents increasingly find themselves absentmindedly handing their young children their phones and tablets for entertainment, believing that such short, frequent periods of screen time will not harm their child’s health. According to the research firm Influence Central, kids are beginning to acquire personal smartphones at an average age of just 10.3 years old. The amount of screen time adolescents are accruing has subsequently increased and will only continue to do so as long as entertainment technology advances.

In the first-ever study outlining the associations between screen-based media use and brain white matter integrity, researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital discovered the true effects that prolonged device use can have on preschool-aged children. The research study, led by Dr. John Hutton, used a specific type of MRI, known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), to scan white matter in participants’ brains. DTI is a technique that detects how water travels along the white matter tracts in the brain. In a functional MRI, white matter will present a certain characteristic when performing specific tasks. White matter is key in this experiment because it contains nerve fibers and neurons that assist in nerve cell communication. It was observed that the children who had been given significant amounts of screen use had lower structural integrity and myelination of their nerves, where the myelin sheath (the fatty substance that coats nerve cell connections, both insulating them and increasing their signaling efficiency) was lower in quantity. As a result, fewer amounts of white matter was found in children spending more time on technology than those who spent less time.

While doctors such as John Hutton may understand the importance of such a study, parents may not understand the immediate effects a screen could have on their children. The white matter deficiency that the researchers observed in the brains will slow children’s development and cognitive skills. The study went on to note observable differences between children who had gotten screen time and those who hadn’t. Children who were allowed longer hours of screen use experienced decreased cognitive skills, and their development of language and literacy seemed to be hindered. Furthermore, such children were not able to express themselves through their respective languages as clearly as their counterparts, and could not process rapidly presented stimuli at a proficient rate. Hutton declared this study significant “because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years. [...] That's when brains are very plastic and soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life." Hutton’s inspiration for his study came about from directly observing the immense impact technology had on his children, noting that phones could be taken from meals to the bathroom to bed.

The study was done to show that parents should reconsider allowing their children to use technology for longer increments of time after observing such patterns taking place. If a solid foundation regarding device use is managed, a healthy lifestyle is projected for future years. The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that kids only have one hour or less of screen time if under five years of age and no screen time if younger than one. Further studies remain to be done on children’s ability to maintain proper brain capacity while using technology, especially during the important early years of life. Some may wonder how to best avoid excessive amounts of usage. Parents should monitor screen activity and could possibly lock devices at times during which children will not be permitted to use them. Measures such as these can ensure that children will not suffer the products of device addiction.

While Hutton’s study focused on preschool-aged children, considerable effects of prolonged use may be applied to adults. Adults are currently spending an average of four hours a day on their phones. It is known that the brain continues to develop until when an individual is in their mid-20s or early 30s, meaning that even as an adult, device use can affect memory capacity, attention span, and sleep cycles. There are even more issues that may come about from technology use as an adult, as the effects of blue light emitted from phones are being researched. And while the technology has already been shown to have a multitude of physiological effects on the human body, its other harmful consequences can target mental health, social skills, and more. Technology has presented many great advantages to daily life, but it also introduces risks that must be taken into consideration for safer usage. It’s time to learn how to properly use technology.