New Study Examines Effects of Screen Time
Once in a while I get a chance to look at 60 Minutes on CBS. If you have kids and wonder if all that time they spend on their smartphones endlessly scrolling, snapping and texting is affecting their brains, you might want to put down your own phone and pay attention. The federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, has launched the most ambitious study of adolescent brain development ever attempted. In part, scientists are trying to understand what no one currently does: how all that screen time impacts the physical structure of your kids’ brains, as well as their emotional development and mental health.
At 21 sites across the country scientists have begun interviewing nine and ten-year-olds and scanning their brains. They’ll follow more than 11,000 kids for a decade, and spend $300 million doing it. Dr. Gaya Dowling of the National Institutes of Health gave us a glimpse of what they’ve learned so far.
Here is what they have learned:
The MRI’s found significant differences in the brains of some kids who use smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day.
The colors in the MRI’s show differences in the nine and ten-year-olds’ brains. The red color in the images represents premature thinning of the cortex. That’s the wrinkly outermost layer of the brain that processes information from the five senses.
According to Dr Dowling this is typically thought to be a maturational process. So what we would expect to see later is happening a little bit earlier. But it was not clear if this was caused by screen time.
But something that I found interesting about the 60 Minutes piece was the addictive nature of electronic devices on very small children.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis at Seattle Children’s Hospital was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ most recent guidelines for screen time. They now recommend parents, “avoid digital media use, except video chatting, in children younger than 18 to 24 months.”
According to Dr Christakis, “If you’re concerned about your teenager being addicted to their iphone, your infant is much more vulnerable and using the exact same device, because the experience of making something happen is so much more gratifying to them.”
In a small pilot study that Dr. Christakis conducted on 15 children, researchers gave toddlers three toys: first a plastic guitar, then an iPad that played musical notes and finally an iPad with an app that rewarded the kids with lights, colors and sounds. At a very specific time, the research assistant will ask the child to give what they’re playing with back to the research assistant. With the iPad that simulates that, they give it back almost with the same frequency. But with the iPad app that when they push on it, it does all kinds of things, they’re much less likely to give the device back.
With the more interactive iPad app, the percentage of kids willing to hand it back to the researcher dropped from 60 percent to 45 percent. Because according to Dr Christakis, “It’s that much more engaging. And that’s what we find in the laboratory.”
It’s engaging by design, as Tristan Harris told us in a story 60 Minutes reported more than a year ago. There’s a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible. The former Google manager who was one of the first Silicon Valley insiders to publicly acknowledge that phones and apps are being designed to capture and keep kids’ attention. This is about the war for attention and where that’s taking society and where that’s taking technology. No matter how addictive, set up guidelines to limit kids screen time. Play outside, read a book – engage in some good kid fun!