The federal government in the United States has launched a first-of-its-kind study into how screen time affects children’s brains.
The National Institutes of Health study is the most ambitious project yet and will look at how screen time impacts the development of children’s brains as well as the affects on their emotional development and mental health.
Research taking place in 21 sites across the US has already begun, with scientists interviewing and performing brain scans on nine and 10-year-olds. 11,000 children will be followed for a decade as part of the study, which will cost $300 million.
Anderson Cooper from CBS’s 60 Minutes, spoke to Dr Gaya Dowling about what the research has found so far, after the first wave of data from 4,500 participants has been collated.
Dr Dowling showed Cooper MRI scans from the research, noting the difference between the brains of children who use smartphones and who are exposed to screens for more than seven hours per day.
Red colours on the scan represent a thinning of the cortex – the outer part of the brain which processes information from the body’s senses. Dowling explained the thinning is thought to be a ‘maturation process’.
Explaining the early stage of the study, Dr Gaya Dowling said:
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 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.
However, research has already found kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests.
Once the study is complete Dr Dowling hopes to be able to say whether screen time is addictive or not. Further questions will be answered in the coming years, but others will take longer.
The delay for results is leaving researchers anxious for the impact on the development of younger children.
Dr Dimitri Christakis from Seattle Children’s Hospital said:
In many ways, the concern that investigators like I have is that we’re sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children.
Children younger than 18-24 months old are now recommended to avoid digital media use except video chatting.
Dr Christakis explained how babies playing with iPads are unable to transfer what they learn on-screen to the real world, ‘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 added: ‘It’s not a transferable skill. They don’t transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three.’
The disturbing nature of smartphone addiction is increased in younger children. Dr. Christakis said:
Because the experience of making something happen is so much more gratifying to them.
In a previous study children were less likely to hand devices back to researchers the more interactive the app.
Cooper also spoke to Tristan Harris, a former Google manager, who was one of the first in Silicon Valley to publicly acknowledge phones and apps are being designed to capture and keep kids’ attentions.
This is about the war for attention and where that’s taking society and where that’s taking technology.
That is where this gets particularly sensitive…is developmentally do we want this war for attention to be affecting our children?
Harris doesn’t think parents understand the complexities of what children are dealing with. A phone is a very different device to the one parents were using when they were children.
[…] your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.
Jean Tweng, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, spent five years looking at four large national surveys of 11 million young people since the 1960s.
She discovered a sudden change in behaviour and mental health in those born after 1995 and later – the ‘I-gen’ as she calls it.
Looking at the introduction of smartphones into wider society around 2012, Tweng said she was startled to find, in the four years which followed, the percentage of teens that reported drinking or having sex fell, but the percentage of those that said they were lonely or depressed spiked.
A lot of times with these technological shifts is these things are adopted because they’re so wonderful and convenient.
And we don’t realize until later the possible consequences. [sic] And I think fortunately in the last year or so there’s been more discussion about how can we manage the use of our devices.
While we wait for the research to come in over the following years it makes sense for us all to put our phones down a little more often.
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Tim Horner is a sub-editor at UNILAD. He graduated with a BA Journalism from University College Falmouth before most his colleagues were born. A previous editor of adult mags, he now enjoys bringing the tone down in the viral news sector.