Kids Who Stare at a Screen for More Than 7 Hours a Day Have Different Brain Structure: Study

December 10, 2018 Updated: December 10, 2018

A groundbreaking, $300 million study has discovered that children who spend at least seven hours a day on smartphones or tablets are changing the structure of their brains.

The new research was funded by the National Institute of Health, a government agency, showing the results of technology on children.

Researchers made their finding by scanning the brains of 4,500 children, and scientists are in the process of following more than 11,000 9-year-olds and 10-year-olds over the course of about a decade. The first bit of data has revealed that too much screen time might have an adverse effect on children.

“Scientists can look at brain characteristics associated with impulsive action or early psychopathology; the impact of health behaviors (e.g., sleep, physical activity) on cognitive and brain development; or traits associated with media use, including screen time exposure. For example, a recent study (link is external) by ABCD investigators showed associations between differing amounts and kinds of screen time (e.g., video games vs. social media) and different structural brain characteristics, psychological traits, and cognitive function,” reads an abstract from the National Institute of Health.

“Scientists will be able to follow participants over time to understand how media use will influence a person’s development, underscoring the unique opportunity provided by the ABCD study,” it said.

Namely, scientists discovered that daily screen usage showed that children had premature thinning of the brain cortex, which is the outermost layer that processes information. Those who have less screen usage showed a difference than those who did, but NIH study director, Gaya Dowling, cautioned against making a conclusion yet.

“We don’t know if it’s being caused by the screen time. We don’t know yet if it’s a bad thing,” Dowling said, reported CBS News. “It won’t be until we follow them over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we’re seeing in this single snapshot.”

In the CBS report, scientists aren’t clear whether a thinner cortex shown in brain scans is caused by screen time.

“Some questions we’ll be able to answer in a few years,” stated Dowling. “But some of the really interesting questions about these long-term outcomes, we’re gonna have to wait awhile because they need to happen.”

But she added: “The interviews and data from the NIH study have already revealed something else: kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests.”

Dowling hopes that when the study is finished, researchers will be able to determine if screen time is addictive.

“We’ll be able to see not only how much time are they spending, how they perceive it impacting them, but also what are some of the outcomes. And that will get at the question of whether there’s addiction or not,” she told CBS.

The answers won’t be available, she said, for a few years.

“But some of the really interesting questions about these long-term outcomes, we’re gonna have to wait awhile because they need to happen,” Dowling continued.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, with the Seattle Children’s Hospital, was the lead author on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ most recent guidelines for screen time, saying that parents should “avoid digital media use, except video chatting, in children younger than 18 to 24 months.”

“So what we do know about babies playing with iPads is that they don’t transfer what they learn from the iPad to the real world, which is to say that if you give a child an app where they play with virtual Legos, virtual blocks, and stack them, and then put real blocks in front of them, they start all over,” he said in the report.

He said the knowledge acquired via playing virtual blocks and Legos doesn’t transfer to the real world. “It’s not a transferable skill. They don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three,” he said.