Children screen time: Toddlers on iPad or tablet

Babies playing on a tablet (Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash)

SINGAPORE — Looking at phones, tablets, or televisions rewires the brains of children under the age of two, new research warns. Scientists in Singapore say screen time harms development of “high order cognitive skills” such as decision making, thinking, and creativity.

The findings are based on scans of 437 infants from Singapore who were 18 months-old. The electroencephalogram (EEG) test measures neural activity through small, round discs with wires attached to the children’s scalps. Corresponding author Dr. Evelyn Law from the National University of Singapore says one theory is that staring at screens damages relationships with parents, which is vital for brain development.

“Further efforts are urgently needed to distinguish the direct association of infant screen use compared with family factors that predispose early screen use on executive function impairments,” researchers write in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Results show screen time at 12 months of age affected performance in school years later. The average amount of screen time children consumed was two hours a day. It accounted for 40 percent of the difference in results.

What are executive functions?

Executive functions represent a collection of higher-order cognitive skills essential for self-regulation, learning, and academic achievement, as well as mental health. They develop rapidly over the first years of life in concert with the prefrontal cortex and are highly susceptible to environmental influences.

“In this study, infant screen use was associated with altered cortical EEG activity before age two years,” the study authors explain. “The identified EEG markers mediated the association between infant screen time and executive functions.”

Infants are particularly vulnerable to executive function deficits due to their difficulty processing information on two-dimensional screens, a phenomenon known as “video deficit.” The need to comprehend challenging content, particularly designed for older children and adults that is unfamiliar and fantastical in nature, requires tremendous cognitive resources and processing.

“This kind of processing relies heavily on attention primarily through the sensory pathways of the brain which leaves inadequate allocation of resources for prefrontal, top-down attention and typical development of executive functions,” researchers write.

Screen time can lead to a number of health problems

Previous studies have recommended that parents ban their babies and toddlers from using screens, and children under five should only use them for one hour a day. Excessive screen time can lead to obesity, slower brain and physical development, and worsening mental health, according to the World Health Organization.

“Our study provides evidence for the persisting longitudinal association between infant screen time at age 12 months and attention and executive functioning outcomes at nine years of age,” Dr. Law’s team writes.

“The outcome measures were teacher reports and objective laboratory tasks. Both corroborate real-world manifestations of observable impairments. In short, increased screen time in infancy is associated with impairments in cognitive processes critical for health, academic achievement and future work success. Screen time likely represents a measurable contextual characteristic of a family or a proxy for the quality of parent-child interaction. Given the pervasiveness of infant screen use, our findings have public health implications on a population level.”

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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