Take a look around and you won’t be hard pressed to find a smartphone, iPad, or other device. Whether it’s in the car ride to the store, after school for entertainment, or to help keep our kids occupied in a pinch, children born during this digital age receive more screen time than ever before.
The question remains, how does excess screen time impact the developing brains of our children?
Screen Time Recommendations
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “toddlers and young children spend no more than one hour a day watching quality educational programming.” However, a recent study conducted by the University of Calgary in Canada found that children between the age of two and five spend an average of two to three hours in front of the screen. Additionally, the majority of this screen time was spent playing video games and watching non educational movies or television programs.
Recent data suggests exposing young children to too much screen time, whether on a computer, smart device or TV, can have negative impacts on their development. In fact, researchers report in JAMA Pediatrics that too much screen time for children is linked to developmental issues with attention, problem-solving, memory, and social and language skills.
The Neurological Impact of Screen Time
Although many parents understand they should limit screen-time, particularly in young children, they often question whether there’s enough evidence to justify taking away their children’s devices. However, recent studies have shown excess screen time impacts the gray matter, white matter, and cortical thickness within the brain.
Brain matter is divided into two areas: gray matter and white matter. The volume of gray matter in a specific area of the brain correlates positively with various abilities and skills, to include reasoning and impulse control. The speed at which we process information is directed by the white matter.
The gray matter of our brain is where “processing” occurs. According to Psychology Today, multiple studies have linked atrophy (the shrinkage loss of tissue volume) in gray matter areas to internet and gaming addiction. Specifically, excess screen time impacts the frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as prioritising, planning, impulse control, and organising.
The white matter within our brain is where communication occurs. Research links excess screen time to the loss of integrity to the brain’s white matter. “Spotty” white matter results in the cognitive loss of communication functions within the brain, including links between the right and left hemispheres, connections between the various lobes of the same hemisphere, and pathways between the lower (emotional and survival) and higher (cognitive) brain centers.
Excessive screen time has also been linked to delayed speech in young children, poor physical fitness, reduced self-esteem, changes in behavior, and more. Essentially, our brains, particularly in children and teens, are becoming addicted to screen time and it is impacting and changing the chemistry of our brains.
Screen Time Recommendations
Regardless of your age, our brains can become addicted to screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines for screen time:
- Under 18 months– whenever possible, avoid screen media.
- 18 – 24 months – parents of children ages 18 to 24 months who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming designed to educate.
- 2 to 5 years old –limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs. It’s also important parents co-view media with their children to help them understand what they are viewing.
- 6 years and older – whether you are 6 or 66, the maximum amount of recommended daily screen time is two hours per day.
Transition to a Low-tech Life
Lowering our daily levels of screen time can feel overwhelming. Between smartphones, iPads, work emails, and television programs, we live in a very tech savvy world. So how can you help your family transition to a low-tech lifestyle?
First, practice what you preach. As a parent, it’s important to limit our screen time as much as possible. While it may seem impossible with work, there are ways to reduce daily screen time. Start by designating media-free times together, such as driving or during dinner, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
Be sure to engage in ongoing communication about why you are limiting screen time, and how excess screen time can impact our physical and mental health. It’s also never too early to discuss online safety and citizenship, including treating others with respect both offline and online.
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