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How toddler screen time can impact brain development

The amount of media and screen time we consume has always been up for debate, especially when it comes to young children. A decade ago, we worried about the effects of too much TV. Before that, radio consumption was in question (can you imagine?). But now we have mobile devices, tablets, and seemingly a thousand other electronic devices, and many parents wonder whether these digital devices have a negative effect on children’s language development, social skills, brain development, and physical health.

As a parent of two young children, I’m very aware that screen time is a norm in our household. So, when a study on screen time use came across my own screen, it caught my attention. My kids love their tablets and video games, and I’m always looking for evidence that we need to cut back on media use.

The study, released in early November by JAMA Pediatrics, explores how more screen use among babies, toddler and preschool children can potentially affect cognitive development. The studies shows that more than the recommended one hour of screen time is associated with less development of the brain’s white matter. Woah, that sounds scary, right? So what does that even mean?

Why does "white matter" matter?

You might have heard about gray matter in the brain, which houses most of the brain cells that control what our bodies do. But it’s the white matter that connects and organizes communication between different regions of the brain.

As a connector, white matter is key to the development of cognitive, literacy and language skills. Though white matter makes up more than half of the human brain, it has historically only been studied as it relates to what makes us sick. More recent studies, like the JAMA study on excessive screen time, as well as studies around memory loss are leading medical professionals and researchers to take a closer look at the role white matter plays in the brain.

The results of the JAMA study found that children who used more than the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended amount of screen time had more underdeveloped white matter throughout the brain, which can slow the processing speed of a child’s brain and impact areas involved with language and literacy.

However, researchers and pediatricians caution that the results of the study are preliminary and emphasize that screen time isn’t causing brain damage. Rather, because the brain develops the most during the first five years of life, it is extremely important for children to have diverse interactions that include speaking, playing, getting social interaction, using their motor skills, and flexing problem-solving skills.

Should parents limit screen time?

Does this mean that, as parents, we need to limit our kids’ screen time entirely? Not necessarily. Media is still a factor in shaping early brain growth. But there are some general rules of thumb that parents can follow. First and foremost, parents should follow AAP’s guidelines of zero to two hours of daily screen time depending on age. How much is too much screen time depends on the age of the child. Below is a list of screen time recommendations by age:

Ages 18 months and younger
Avoid screen media other than video chatting

Ages 18 to 24 months
Introduce high-quality programming and view it with your children to help them understanding what's going on.

Ages 2 to 5 years old
Limit screen use to one hour per day and only allow high-quality programs. Aim to view media with your children to help them understand the content and how it relates to their world.

Ages 6 or older
Be consistent about screen-time limits and don’t exceed two hours per day. Most importantly with children six years of age and up, ensure screen time does not get in the way of health essentials like sleep, learning, active play and physical activity.

Setting a good example for our school-aged children is key, and finding ways to engage them in the real world instead of the virtual world can have a great impact on their well-being.

This mom's perspective

While I am eager to continue to follow along with future studies on this topic, my main takeaways are:

  1. Like everything, screen time should be used and enjoyed in moderation.
  2. Screens should never replace other, more important development opportunities like reading, singing, creative play and art.
  3. Make sure to interact with your children as they view or interact with screens. This can be as simple as singing along with a program or as in-depth as explaining how what they’ve seen affects them and the world around them.
  4. Every family is different. Find what works best for yours.

One final note: It is always important to speak with your pediatrician about your child’s growth and development. They can help determine the right about of screen time for your children and direct you to appropriate programming and resources on the subject.

authors photo
Maggie Brown
Maggie Brown

Internal Communications Specialist

Maggie is an internal communications specialist at Blue Cross NC focusing on spreading the company’s news to its employees. What she loves most about her job is connecting with employees and sharing their remarkable stories.

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