Is your child’s brain development affected by too much screen time? Researchers from Cincinnati, OH would have us believe that it is. In an online study published Monday on the JAMA Pediatrics website, they found that preschoolers age 3-5 who had more screen time, scored lower on cognitive testing, and that it correlated to differences in brain structure on MRI. Intriguing…..intriguing. All the news organizations have picked up on it and have read the headlines as if it were a fact. Well, let’s do a deeper dive. They studied 47 kids in a higher income bracket. I believe they used valid measures with the ScreenQ questionnaire, the cognitive testing seems appropriate. The brain technology is unfamiliar to me. It’s called DTI, diffusion tension imaging. They claim it can describe see how much white matter deposition and myelin is present in a given area of the brain. White matter is the functioning active part of the brain, myelin is the insulation around nerve cells that allow a signal to be sent.
So in this study they correlated kids into how they fared with the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for screen time. Less than an hour a day, and not close to bed time. It appears that those kids who fell more away from the recommendations, scored lower on the cognitive tests, and on the DTI had lower white matter and more myelin in the areas of the brain dealing with language and executive functioning. The conclusion appropriately is that this calls for more study. However, the news would have you believe that the conclusions were that if your child has too much screen time, they will be poorer at language and dumber. That is unfair.
This is a small study, probably 47 kids from the same Mommy’s Day Out Program. They all have access to personal devices. 37 of the kids mom’s have advanced degrees. Hardly a random swab of America. Even in these kids, it’s difficult to know the degree of changes in their brain structure was significant. The researchers postulated a question and with new technology proved themselves right. There might be some bias in that. But gladly they reached the correct conclusion for such an elegant study. We should look at this some more.
Let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water. Just because this is a small sample, it only furthers not retracts the guidelines of the AAP. That we should be mindful of how much screen time preschoolers get. It is a vulnerable part of brain development. We should let them be bored for some the day, I think I certainly was.