Is screen-time literally shrinking your child's brain?

Are three hours a day on screens damaging your child’s brain? How about six hours a day? And what if they’re online pretty well constantly?

Questions like these keep digital parents up at night. And a new study of 4,500 young people, directed by the prestigious National Institutes of Health, is hoping to finally get answers.

The $300 million project is investigating the links between brain development and a range of environmental variables, including substance abuse, concussion - and yes, screen-time.

Preliminary findings from the study  - the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) project - were reported on the US edition of 60 Minutes this week. And they've been generating headlines, and sending parents into a panic, the world over.

Thinning of the cortex 

Of special concern is the finding that some heavy screen users showed “cortical thinning” at younger than average ages, and scored lower on some aptitude tests than kids who spent less time on screens.

Cortical thinning refers to a change in the structure of the cerebral cortex, and is normally associated with ageing, memory loss and other cognitive impairments.

The possible links between excessive screen time and attention deficits, mood disorders and learning difficulties are also under close investigation.

But before you panic ...


The research team has cautioned that the data are preliminary, and possibly meaningless. It doesn’t make for the greatest headlines - but, yes, science is sometimes like that.

One problem is that the study relies on “self-report” data not "observational" data. In layman's terms, that means that screen-time usage is based on what kids say - not researchers observe them actually doing. Such data can be highly inaccurate.

Another difficulty is that brain function is mind-bendingly complex and as yet poorly understood, even by the experts. One thing that is known is that there is a huge variation between individuals. That makes it really difficult to generalise findings.

Shape-shifting brains

Then there’s the problem that researchers have no idea whether the effects they’ve observed are permanent, or will be subject to still more changes as children mature.

screen warning

Ok, not those screens ...!

Because it’s not just our screen-time habits that mould the shape of our brains. So  so does every activity we habitually engage in. Reading. Writing. Sport. Music. Play.

That said, we know that the brain’s mould-ability or “neuroplasticity” is at its height during the pre- and early teen years. And that suggests that this is a particular critical time for brain development.

The good news is that study is large and rigorous and ongoing. The ABCD project will be following 11,800 children through adolescence and conducting yearly magnetic resonance imaging to track brain changes.

Gradually, a much clearer picture will be emerging of the the links between screen-time and brain changes - and between those changes and how young people actually behave and respond. Stay tuned!

Is it better to be safe than sorry? Most experts agree it’s only common sense to take steps right now to manage your child’s screen-time. Family Zone’s trusted parental controls can help. To learn more, or to start your free trial, visit today.

photo credit: "Warning Screen will not stop child from falling out window." by Steve and Sara is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Topics: Parental Controls, Screen time, school holidays, brain, neuroplasticity

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