Heavy screen time can rewire young brains: maybe some of it good, but a lot of it not

November 21, 2016  |  General

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It has long been known excessive exposure of your child to screens and social media — television, computers, iPads, iPhones, video games — can have profound effects on brain development. A big question is: “What counts as excessive?” No one is sure about that, and it is likely there is no clear-cut threshold. Brains being complicated things it seems probable threshold varies from child to child. Also keep in mind computers and the like are necessary things in modern life and can contribute significantly to learning. How to find a balance? The American Academy of Pediatrics, the organization representing most pediatricians, issues consensus recommendations on many child health issues, including this one: “Media and Young Minds.” It’s an excellent summary of what we know about the issue and provides a list of specific suggestions. These current recommendations allow for more screen time than previous ones, but still recommend less than one hour per day for preschool children and little or none for children under eighteen months. The AAP suggests each family should devise their own comprehensive media plan, rather than just letting things happen in the home without considering the implications.

I also suggest you read this article from NPR, which summarizes some of the results presented at a recent meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. It includes information about both pros and cons of screen exposure. Here are some results from mice suggesting video games function almost like a drug in their effects on the brain:

. . . a study of young mice exposed to six hours daily of a sound and light show reminiscent of a video game. The mice showed “dramatic changes everywhere in the brain,” said Jan-Marino Ramirez, director of the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Many of those changes suggest that you have a brain that is wired up at a much more baseline excited level, Ramirez reported. You need much more sensory stimulation to get [the brain’s] attention.

Other investigators have suggested some degree of stimulation of this sort helps the developing brain stay more calm in our current environment, which is becoming ever more cacophonous and stimulatory. That viewpoint stresses we can’t turn back the clock to a simpler time and we should try to use media to prepare children for our world today. A sort of middle ground is the viewpoint that exposure to lots of screens and media is good for some children but not for others. Okay, that sounds reasonable, but how do we know who it helps and who it hurts? Nobody has an answer to that question.

What do I think? In my family we do limit screen time and virtually ban video games. It’s the rapid, flashing changes of games that appear most associated with learning problems like ADHD. I suppose I’m biased because I write books (on a computer!), but I think for older children the distinction is between using the computer as a tool versus as an amusement toy. Every parent needs to make their own decisions, of course, but developing an informed family policy and plan is better than just ignoring the issue.

 


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