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Too Much Screen Time May Affect Children's Brain Development, Early Findings Show

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By guest blogger Sasha Jones

Children who use smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day are more likely to experience premature thinning of the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain that processes thought and action, according to a new study released by the National Institutes of Health.

The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study tested 4,500 9-10-year-olds in its first released dataset. The ABCD study is the largest long-term study of brain development in U.S. children to date and has recruited over 11,875 participants, meeting its goal. The next data release will include results from the full group of participants. 

Early data from the study, analyzed by another group of researchers from the CHEO Research Institute's Healthy Active Living and Obesity also showed that kids who spend less than two hours a day on screens, participated in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity, and received nine to 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep had higher cognitive abilities.Cognition was measured by language abilities, episodic memory, executive function, attention, working memory, and processing speed.

Adolescents spend on average four and a half hours a day on their phones, the findings show.

The comparatively lower cognitive skills among children who spend a lot of time on screens is because children fail to translate two-dimensional skills, such as those learned on phones and computers, to the three-dimensional would, according to Dimitri Christakis, the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' screen-time guidelines.

"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," Christakis said in an interview with "60 Minutes" about the study's findings.  

Participants will be followed for 10 years, during which data will be collected on a semi-annual and annual basis through interviews and behavioral testing. Participants will also complete a high-resolution MRI every two years to collect neuroimaging data, which will measure changes in brain structure and function.

When the study is complete, researchers hope that it will be able to show how much time youth spend on screens, how they perceive technology is impacting them, and actual physical consequences or benefits. This will help answer questions surrounding whether technology is addictive.

"We don't know if it's being caused by the screen time. We don't know yet if it's a bad thing. It won't be until we follow [participants] over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we're seeing in this single snapshot," Gaya Dowling, the director of the ABCD study, said in the "60 Minutes" interview.

Researchers also plan to disaggregate the completed data set by sex, racial/ethnic group, and socioeconomic status to further analyze the effects of outside factors on the brain. Overall, the study will examine long term impact of substance use and other environmental exposures beyond technology, including drug use and sports injuries, on the developing brain and functional outcomes.

Photo by Getty

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