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MRIs Show Link Between Preschool Screen Time And Slower Language Growth

mason.zimmer 6 Nov 2019

Although it's fair to say that much more of our lives take place in front of screens than they once did, there have been multiple schools of thought on how kids should use them for decades.

While some can recall growing up in households where the TV was essentially a babysitter, others can definitely recall begrudgingly turning off the video games when their parents made them go play outside.

But while limiting their kid's screen time often seems like something parents feel like they should do, it's hard to get a sense of what will happen if they don't.

Unfortunately, that question still doesn't have a clear-cut answer, but a team of researchers have some interesting insights after scanning some young children's brains.

All of the 69 children who participated in the study were between the ages of three and five.

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As the study's lead author, Dr. John Hutton at Cincinnati Children's Hospital told CNN, "This is important because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years. That's when brains are very plastic and soaking up everything, forming these strong connections that last for life."

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As a child's brain develops, the white matter inside of it can end up organizing itself into parallel bundles.

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As the study written by Dr. Hutton's team discussed, this process is associated with a term called Fractional anisotropy (or FA).

While this is going on, the neurons in this white matter can form a fatty coating on neural pathways called myelin. This process is called radial diffusivity (or RD).

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Without worrying too much about what that's all supposed to mean, the long and short of it is that it's more encouraging to see increased in FA and decreases in RD than vice versa.

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As the study explained, this is often observed in constructive, stimulating situations like when a child is exposed to a new language.

The areas of the brain affected by this process play significant roles in the ability to derive meaning from objects, symbols and letters much like Cypher from The Matrix is doing here.

This ability influences other aspects of a person's language skills, such as the speed of their memory.

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When Hutton's team scanned their young participants' brains, however, what they saw seemed to diverge from these ideal circumstances.

JAMA Pediatrics

The more screen time a child in the study was found to have, the more their white matter tended to show decreased FA and increased RD.

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Although the researchers were careful to caution that this didn't mean screen time caused this effect on the brain, the link remained consistent and significant in their results.

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Based on these results, it seemed possible that heavy screen time did not provide sufficient stimulation for their participants' language development and emerging literacy.

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While this may be partially related to what young children access on screens and how they do it, the team identified another potential factor.

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Namely, that increased screen time leaves less time for directly interacting with other people in activities such as shared reading.

Although it seemed likely that the discouraging white matter organizations they observed could be linked with both issues to some extent, it's still fair to ask whether this had more to do with kids are getting from screens or with what they're not getting.

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Before anyone goes around breaking tablets, it's worth noting that this study had some limitations disclosed by the team.

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One of them was the small sample size of the participating children. Out of the already small pool of 69 children involved, 47 actually ended up completing the study.

As Hutton's team wrote, however, this sample size is actually fairly large for a study of this type due to the difficulty of conducting MRI scans on children of such a young age.

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Another issue was the economic status of the families participants came from.

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All were relatively high in terms of socioeconomic status and any attempts to associate screen time with cognitive testing scores became statistically insignificant once income was accounted for.

Also, the screen time metrics relied on reporting by the children's parents, so it's not impossible for some bias to make their children's data seem more socially desirable to creep in.

Still, the results show an interesting pattern that do a lot to illustrate the value of a balanced, stimulating upbringing for children.

h/t: JAMA Pediatrics

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