As parents, we have long suspected that screen time was having an impact on our child’s brain, both positive and negative. But new research from National Institute of Health (NIH) has found that the structure of children’s brain forms differently based on how much screen time your child is exposed to per day.

NIH researchers have found that the brain scans of children who spend more than seven hours of the day on screen time, show a thinning of the cortex. Seven hours of screen time might seem like an excessive amount but it is actually less than the average teen’s consumption (7.5 hours teenage girls and 8 hours teenage boys) and just above the average viewed by children five to sixteen (6.5 hours), according to the Childwise Connected Kids Survey.

And while neurologists and researchers expect to see cortex thinning occur in adolescents, it’s abnormal to see in a child just starting puberty at nine or ten years old. During this transformational period of brain development, negative influences such as gaming, porn, violence, technology, alcohol, and drugs can have long term effects.

Read More: A Parent’s Guide to Demystifying Screen Time

Why the Effects of Screen Time on Brain Development is Important

When children and adolescents are exposed to screen time it can be like a digital drug that they have a difficult time resisting and children can even show signs of withdrawal when they are not allowed to access technology. Many studies have indicated that screen time can stimulate the release of the brain chemical dopamine, which while making the child feel good can also contribute to impulse control issues, such as self-limiting screen time.

The developing brains of tweens and teens allows the processing of more complex thinking and socialization, however, their brains are also more vulnerable to sensations and to risky behavior due to their prefrontal cortex not yet being fully formed, which helps to control impulses and sound judgement.

Below are some common effects screen time can have on your child’s developing brain:

  1. Desynchronizes Body’s Internal Clock
    Your child’s eyes are attracted to the bright light and vivid colors they view on their electronic devices. Unfortunately, most young brains are challenged in handling this intense stimulation and confuse the bright light with daytime. The blue light effects from screen time can reset the body’s internal clock and impact the brain’s ability to send sleep signals by suppressing melatonin. That is why many experts suggest limiting screen time prior to bed, since just minutes of screen use can delay melatonin release by a few hours and can result in insomnia, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep.
  2. Altered Brain and Frontal Lobe Development
    Even prior to the NIH study, many researcher and scientists have noted the correlation between participants addicted to screen time, the internet, and gaming and the loss of gray matter in the frontal lobes and reduced cortical thickness. The conclusions of the research appear to indicate that excessive screen-time can impair brain structure and function. These results are concerning since the frontal lobe brain development impacts personality, impulse control, reasoning, and empathy. Scientists also believe frontal lobe development may be a key factor in determining academic success as well as building essential relationship skills.
  3. Desensitizing Brain’s Natural Reward System
    During screen time usage our brains release dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel pleasure. The challenge is that we can become addicted to the rush associated with dopamine, which can make kids more dependent on their electronic devices. Studies have shown that individuals with Internet and gaming addictions are creating abnormalities in the brain, which is concerning to parents because even minimal changes in dopamine sensitivity can impact your child’s emotions and ability to function effectively.
  4. Reduced Brain Connectivity
    A recent study with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital showed that screen time and time spent reading showed different effects in the regions of the brain related to language and cognitive control. Time spent on screens showed decreased brain connectivity, while traditional reading increased brain activity. It is important to note that data from the NIH study also revealed that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens obtained lower scores on thinking and language.
  5. Smartphones in Bedrooms Linked to Depression
    Numerous studies have indicated a link between the blue light that is emitted from your electronic devices at night and depression. Research suggests that blue light contributes to suppressing the sleep regulating chemical melatonin, as well as elevating cortisol, the fight or flight stress hormone. As a result, both of these chemicals are disruptive to the internal rhythms of the body clock. Experts recommend eliminating smartphones from bedrooms or selecting a night setting to reduce regular exposure because it may have a negative effect on our mood and ability to learn.
  6. Sleep Deprivation & Sleep Disorders
    Ensuring your tween or teen is getting an adequate amount of sleep can be an uphill battle, especially if they are glued to their electronic devices. Children ages 12-17 should average nine to ten hours of sleep a night, but 80% of adolescents average just seven and a half hours a night. The resulting 2 hours of sleep deprivation can result in problems with attention, memory, decision making, and reaction time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children avoid using screens for 1 hour before bedtime and that parents should not to allow their children to sleep with mobile devices.
  7. Changes in Brain Chemistry
    A study by the Radiological Society of North America found there was a difference in the brain chemistry of teens addicted to technology and non-addicted teenagers. Changes were seen in the reward circuits of the brain, which showed slowed brain signals in tech addicted teens. The tech addicted participants also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity, and impulsivity.

What is Screen Time?

Today’s children are immersed in highly personalized media experiences on screens of all kinds including TV, computers, smartphones, tablets, and gaming consoles. Screen time, by definition, is any activity that involves a screen.The American Academy of Pediatrics has recognized that media of any kind can influence how children and teens feel, learn, think, and behave so they encourage parents and caregivers to develop customized media use plans for their children.

Use our Family Media Contract to create a customized media plan based on your child’s developmental stage and interests. Once you create your family’s media plan, remember to share rules with other caregivers, grandparents, and co-parents so rules are consistent.

How Much Screen Time is Too Much?

Media and digital devices are an integral part of our lives and when screen time when used in moderation, it can have an educational and social benefit. However, because a child’s brain is extremely sensitive to electronic stimulation, parents should impose limits on screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently updated their guidelines on healthy screen time limits to include:

  • Children younger than 18 months: Use of screen media other than video-chatting should be discouraged.
  • Children 18 to 24 months of age: Parents should co-watch high-quality programming/apps. Children viewing media by themselves should be avoided.
  • Children two - five years: Limit screen use to no more than 1 hour or less per day of high-quality programming. Co-viewing is preferred, so parents can reinforce new information your child may have just learned through a screen. Studies have indicated “back-and-forth conversation” enhances language skills more so than “passive listening” or “one-way” interaction with a screen.
  • Children over six years: Establish consistent limits on the time spent using media and the types of media.

How to Limit Screen Time for Children

Many families have found that they need additional support establishing healthy boundaries to limit screen time. Below are popular methods that many parenting experts recommend for guiding families on healthy screen time balance.

  • Create tech-free zones: Aim to keep family and social gatherings tech-free, especially family meals.
  • Use a non-tech alarm clock: Use a non-smartphone alarm clock to minimize blue-light and to help ensure your child gets the recommended hours of sleep.
  • Centrally located family charging station: Create a family charging station away from bedrooms to discourage use of devices at inappropriate times.
  • Eliminate background noise: Shut off TVs and radios when not watching or listening to minimize interference with face-to-face time with family members.

Human beings are flawed, and the only guarantee is that your children will make mistakes using digital media. It is essential as parents that we try our best to keep communication open so when we spot red flags, we can not only help our children navigate their digital word but also create teachable moments to minimize repeat mistakes.

There is also no shame in getting professional assistance if you encounter issues beyond your parenting comfort level and a family pediatrician, school counselor, or a professional therapist can offer support to the entire family when needed.

For help limiting your children’s screen time, try a screen time app to help you manage and monitor your kids’ digital habits.