Brain Drain: Screen Time Among Preschoolers Linked To Lower Literacy, Language Scores


New study shows that young children who frequently use digital devices, resulting in excess screen time, have lower levels of white matter in their brains.


CINCINNATI — Young children have never been easy to keep entertained. It’s frequently a challenge for parents to keep their pre-schoolers content, especially on long car rides, visits to in-laws, or trips to the doctor. Decades ago, a child may have nothing more than a book or a few toys to engross themselves in, but more recently it has become increasingly common to see children as young as three or four staring at their very own tablet or smartphone. On the surface, this seems like a win-win for parents and kids alike. Mom and dad get a break, and junior is able to catch up on his or her favorite cartoons or online games.

But parents may want to reconsider this modern-day child rearing strategy. A new study finds that all that screen time is quite literally changing the structure and integrity of children’s developing brains.

More specifically, the areas of the brain impacted are responsible for language skills, literacy, and overall executive functions (attention span, planning skills, organization, and emotion management). To that end, the research team subsequently observed an association between increased screen time among 3-5 year olds and lower expressive language, thought processing, and literacy test scores.

According to the study, conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, young children whose screen time exceeds the guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are showing lower levels of white matter structural integrity.

Some of the AAP’s recommendations include:

  • Children younger than 18 months should avoid screen-based media altogether, besides the occasional video chat. If the parents of an 18-24 month old want to introduce screen devices to their child, they are advised to only allow high-quality programming and to watch the content with their child to make sure they understand what they are viewing.
  • For children aged 2-5 years old, screen time should be limited to one hour per day of high-quality content. Again, it is recommended that parents always supervise what their child is viewing.
  • Households are also advised to set stringent no-media daily time periods, such as dinner, as well as areas of the home, such as bedrooms, where screen time is forbidden.

The AAP recommendations are especially comprehensive in the sense that they do not solely focus on screen time, but also account for access to digital devices, content quality, how the child interacts with the media they are viewing, and who is present while they are using these devices.

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“This study raises questions as to whether at least some aspects of screen-based media use in early childhood may provide sub-optimal stimulation during this rapid, formative state of brain development,” says lead author Dr. John Hutton, director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s, in a release. “While we can’t yet determine whether screen time causes these structural changes or implies long-term neurodevelopmental risks, these findings warrant further study to understand what they mean and how to set appropriate limits on technology use.”

The research phase of the study included 47 healthy children, 20 boys and 27 girls, all between the ages of 3-5 years old. Each child’s parents also participated. First, the children were asked to complete a series of standard cognition tests, which were then followed up with a type of MRI intended to estimate the white matter integrity levels in their brains.

Next, the children’s parents were given a 15-item questionnaire on their child’s screen habits. This survey, called the ScreenQ, was designed to reflect the AAP’s screen time recommendations for children; the higher the score, the more reported screen time. These results were then statistically compared to the children’s test scores and MRI results, all while accounting for household income, age, and gender.

Researchers found that higher ScreenQ scores were significantly associated with poorer expressive language skills, literacy scores, and a delayed ability to name objects (thought processing speed). Higher ScreenQ scores were also linked to lower brain white matter integrity. Low white matter integrity can impede nerve impulse movements throughout the brain, ultimately leading to slower thought processes.

“Screen-based media use is prevalent and increasing in home, childcare and school settings at ever younger ages,” Dr. Hutton adds. “These findings highlight the need to understand effects of screen time on the brain, particularly during stages of dynamic brain development in early childhood, so that providers, policymakers and parents can set healthy limits.”

The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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