Toddlers who spend under an hour in front of screens develop better brains

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Keeping toddlers off the iPad and encouraging them to run around and get some fresh air may help their brain in the long run. A new study finds that regular physical activity and less screen time is key to developing a toddler’s executive function, including their ability to pay attention, shift between tasks, and learn to make good decisions.

Moreover, the study shows that children around two years old who spent less than an hour a day on electronics and exercised daily showed better cognitive skills than those who did not, according to scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“Executive function underlies your ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors,” explains Naiman Khan, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign kinesiology and community health professor and study author, in a statement.. “It includes abilities such as inhibitory control, which allows you to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behavior; working memory, by which you are able to hold information in mind long enough to accomplish a task; and cognitive flexibility, the adeptness with which you switch your attention between tasks or competing demands.”

The findings are in line with diet and physical activity recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Their guidelines advocate for less than 60 minutes of looking at screens every day, daily physical activity, eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables, and avoiding or at the very least, not drinking as many sugary drinks. Previous research found that children who adhered to the AAP recommendations showed better executive function in adolescence. The team sought to find when this relationship begins, and whether it starts as early as toddler age.

The 356 toddlers enrolled in the study were part of a separate project called the “STRONG KIDS 2” study, which includes looking at what factors influence a child’s dietary habits and weight from birth to five years old. The researchers used parental surveys and data on the children that was collected over five years, including when the children were two years old.

Parents filled out a survey on their child’s behaviors such as the average time they’re looking at screens, how physically active they are, and what type of food they usually eat, and whether they drink alot of sugar-sweetened drinks. The survey also asked questions regarding their toddlers’ executive function. These questions related to the child’s thought-planning process, how they manage emotional responses, impulse control, memory, and attention between tasks.

The study reveals an indirect relationship between screen time and executive function. More specifically, toddlers with less than a hour of screen time daily were more likely to control their cognitive responses than those who spent most of their days looking at phones or televisions. “They had greater inhibitory control, working memory and overall executive function,” explains Arden McMath, a graduate student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and study coauthor.

Toddlers who had some daily physical activity also did better on tests involving working memory than those who did not. However, there was no relationship found between a child’s weight or executive function. “The influence of engaging in healthy behaviors on cognitive abilities appears to be evident in early childhood, particularly for behaviors surrounding physical activity and sedentary time,” says Khan.

The study is published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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