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How Toddler Screen Time Can Impact Brain Development

By Maggie Brown | January 24, 2020 | Healthy Lifestyle

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The amount of media and screen time we consume has always been up for debate, especially when it comes to young children. A decade ago, we worried about the effects of too much TV. Before that, radio consumption was in question (can you imagine?).

As a parent of two young children, I’m very aware that screen time is a norm in our household. So, when a study on screen time use came across my own screen, it caught my attention. My kids love their tablets and video games, and I’m always looking for evidence that we need to cut back.

The study, released in early November by JAMA Pediatrics, explores how more screen use among babies, toddler and preschool-aged children can potentially affect cognitive development. The studies shows that more than the recommended one hour of screen time is associated with less development of the brain’s white matter. Woah, that sounds scary, right? So what does that even mean?

Why Does “White Matter” Matter?

You might have heard about gray matter in the brain, which houses most of the brain cells that control what our bodies do. But it’s the white matter that connects and organizes communication between different regions of the brain.[1] As a connector, white matter is key to the development of cognitive, literacy and language skills. Though white matter makes up more than half of the human brain, it has historically only been studied as it relates to what makes us sick. More recent studies, like the JAMA study on screen time, as well as studies around memory loss are leading medical professionals and researchers to take a closer look at the role white matter plays in the brain.

The results of the JAMA study found that children who used more than the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)’s recommended amount of screen time had more underdeveloped white matter throughout the brain, which can slow the processing speed of a child’s brain and impact areas involved with language and literacy.[2]

However, researchers and pediatricians caution that the results of the study are preliminary and emphasize that screen time isn’t causing brain damage. Rather, because the brain develops the most during the first five years of life, it is extremely important for children to have diverse interactions that include speaking, playing and problem-solving.

Should Parents Limit Screen Time?

Does this mean that, as parents, we need to limit our kids’ screen time entirely? Not necessarily. Media is still a factor in shaping early brain growth. But there are some general rules of thumb that parents can follow. First and foremost, parents should follow AAP’s guidelines of zero to two hours of daily screen time depending on age. Below is a chart of screen time recommendations by age:

Age AAP Screen Time Recommendation
18 months and younger Avoid screen media other than video chatting.

 

18-24 months Introduce high-quality programming and view it with your children to help them understand what’s going on.
2-5 years old Limit screen use to one hour per day and only allow high-quality programs. Aim to view media with your children to help them understand the content and how it relates to their world.
6 and older Be consistent about screen-time limits and don’t exceed two hours per day. Most importantly with children this age, ensure screen time does not get in the way of health essentials like sleep, learning and physical activity.

 

This Mom’s Perspective

While I am eager to continue to follow along with future studies on this topic, my main takeaways are:

  1. Like everything, screen time should be used and enjoyed in moderation.
  2. Screens should never replace other, more important development opportunities like reading, singing, creative play and art.
  3. Make sure to interact with your children as they view or interact with screens. This can be as simple as singing along with a program or as in-depth as explaining how what they’ve seen affects them and the world around them.
  4. Every family is different. Find what works best for yours. The AAP’s Media Time Calculator is a great resource.

 

One final note: It is always important to speak with your pediatrician about your child’s growth and development. They can help determine the right about of screen time for your children and direct you to appropriate programming and resources on the subject.

[1]  https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/04/health/screen-time-lower-brain-development-preschoolers-wellness/index.html

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/04/health/screen-time-lower-brain-development-preschoolers-wellness/index.html