Screen-time warning: Toddlers given tablets, phones to play with can suffer lasting brain damage

SINGAPORE — Sitting toddlers down in front of a screen all day can do lasting damage to their brains, a new study warns. Scientists in Singapore add that the harm to screen-watching infants persists into late childhood, even beyond the age of eight.

Kids dealing with these deficits found it difficult to stay alert, control impulses and emotions, sustain attention, follow multi-step instructions, and complete difficult tasks, according to the team from the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS). These executive functioning deficits correlated with long screen times as an infant, increasing the number of “low-frequency” waves in the brain. Each skill is essential for learning and school performance.

Viewing screens can overwhelm a child’s mind

Researchers revealed excessive screen times is one environmental activity that can interfere with developing executive function. Toddlers struggle to process information on a two-dimensional screen because they are bombarded with a stream of fast-paced movements, blinking lights, and scene changes. A lot of cognitive resources are needed to make sense of what they’re watching. As an infant, the brain becomes “overwhelmed” and unable to leave enough mental tools to develop cognitive skills such as executive function.

Brains grow rapidly from the time a child is born until early childhood, but the part of the brain behind executive functioning (the prefrontal cortex) takes longer to form. Delayed prefrontal development means executive function skills can be shaped right up until someone enters higher education. However, it also makes executive functioning skills highly vulnerable to environmental influences over a period of time.

“These findings from the GUSTO study should not be taken lightly because they have an impact on the potential development of future generations and human capital,” says Professor Chong Yap Seng, Dean of NUS Medicine and Chief Clinical Officer, SICS, in a media release.

“With these results, we are one step closer towards better understanding how environmental influences can affect the health and development of children. This would allow us to make more informed decisions in improving the health and potential of every Singaporean by giving every child the best start in life.”

Why are parents relying so much of screens?

The Singapore team fears that families allowing very young children to spend hours on a screen face additional challenges such as food or housing insecurity, and mood disorders among parents. They’re calling for more work on understanding why kids use screens too much, and to distinguish between the direct effect of screen use from other family factors that may harm the brain.

“The study provides compelling evidence to existing studies that our children’s screen time needs to be closely monitored, particularly during early brain development,” adds lead author Dr. Evelyn Law from NUS Medicine and SICS’s Translational Neuroscience Program.

During the study, when children reached the age of 12 months, parents reported the average amount of screen time on weekdays and weekends every week. Children were separated into four groups: less than one hour a day watching screens, one to two hours, two to four hours, and over four hours.

At 12 and 18 months, researchers measured each child’s brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG). Once they turned nine year-old, the youngsters took a series of brain tests, measuring their attention span and executive functioning. EEG readings revealed infants exposed to longer screen time had more “low frequency” waves, matching their struggles to stay alert.

“In a country like Singapore, where parents work long hours and kids are exposed to frequent screen viewing, it’s important to study and understand the impact of screen time on children’s developing brains,” concludes Professor Michael Meaney, Program Director of the Translational Neuroscience Program at SICS.

The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.

South West News Service writer Pol Allingham contributed to this report.

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