Screen time may be physically damaging kids' brains, study reveals

The screen time struggle rages on, as parents wrestle with the need for a few minutes of peace and the knowledge that screen time could be harmful to their kids.

Numerous studies have proven that watching media on TV, tablets and mobile phones is detrimental to children, in a number of ways, but the emphasis is usually on behaviour and their emotional wellbeing.

A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics provides further evidence that screen time has a negative impact on children, by revealing the physical damage to preschooler's brains, through MRI scans. 

In the largest study of its kind, 47 preschoolers between age 3 and 5 were tested to measure their cognitive abilities, while their parents were asked to answer a detailed survey about screen time habits. 

Questions included: 

How frequently do they use that screen?

What type of content are they viewing?

Is there an adult sitting with the child talking about what they're watching?

The answers were scored against a set of screen time guidelines put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and results showed high screen time use was associated with lower levels of language and literacy skills.

The brain's internal communications network

The kids also had their brains scanned in an MRI machine. The scans revealed that the preschoolers who spent more time in front of screens had what the authors call lower "white matter integrity".  

Lead author John Hutton of Cincinnati Children's Hospital explained that "White matter can be roughly thought of as the brain's internal communications network."

"Its long nerve fibers are sheathed in fatty insulation that allows electrical signals to move from one area of the brain to another without interruption. The integrity of that structure - how well organized the nerve fibers are, and how well developed the myelin sheath is - is associated with cognitive function," he described, "and it develops as kids learn language."

"Caution is warranted," Hutton warned. "Children are not small grown-ups, and their needs change with development."

The Idiot Box

While parents can't easily access MRI scanners to check out their kids brains, they can see for themselves how they respond to screens, as so distressingly showcased by Australian artist Donna Stevens. 

Her disturbing series featuring children shot while they watched TV, is an "exploration into the co-dependent yet contradictory relationship we all share with technology and the media".

Titled Idiot Box, the portrait series asks if we should exhibit more caution about the role of technology in our children's lives, and if our techno-paranoia is warranted?

The photos appear to answer for themselves

Photo: Donna Stevens via

Photo: Donna Stevens via

Photo: Donna Stevens via

Find more details on the study here: JAMA Pediatrics 

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