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SALT LAKE CITY — Over 11,000 children recently agreed to participate in a decade-long study that will focus, in part, on how screen time affects adolescent brain development.
Though the study won't be complete for years down the road, early results show significant differences in the brains of some kids who spend more than seven hours a day on smartphones, tablets and video games, the National Institutes of Health told 60 Minutes in December.
The institute's Dr. Gaya Dowling said brain scans show a premature thinning of the cortex in those children — something that usually happens during a maturation process later in life. While researchers are still unsure what this means (or whether it's harmful), they know something is happening.
And so does everyone else.
Screen time is a big concern for both parents and teens. A 2018 Pew Research report found that 54 percent of teens feel they spend too much time on their cellphones, and two-thirds of parents worry about their child spending too much time in front of a screen.
As the world continues to discover and navigate the effects of screen time, let's take a look at what the research says about the pros and cons:
- Screen time is linked to ADHD symptoms: Excessive use of media by teens may potentially increase their odds of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, according to a recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. "Teens who were high-frequency users of seven or 14 digital media platforms were more than twice as likely to develop ADHD symptoms than teens who did not use any media platform at a high-frequency rate," one of the authors of the study, psychologist Adam Leventhal, told NPR. He also cautions that the “study does not prove that being plugged into their devices caused ADHD among teens,” but that it does find an association.
- Screen time affects sleep: Research, including a 2016 study in medical journal Preventative Medicine, has connected the use of devices and social media with sleep disturbances. Greater use of social media is correlated with a lack of sleep while screens that emit blue light can inhibit the production of melatonin — a hormone responsible for the regulation of the body clock.
- Screen time can limit people’s hobbies and activities: An oft-overlooked effect of excessive screen time is the time it takes people away from other activities. There are only so many hours in a day. Too much screen time takes away time that could be spent reading and learning, being with friends, developing talents, spending time with family or many other beneficial activities.
- Screen time can encourage civic engagement: “Screen time is not a thing. It’s many things — in the classroom as well as kid’s everyday lives,” said Anne Collier, founder of The Net Safety Collaborative — an online publication about technology and families. “The pros would be whatever uses of devices and apps engage students, enhance their learning and enable them to practice citizenship in digital as well as school environments,” she said. The internet gives children the opportunity to learn more about their outside world and get involved in a way that’s never been possible before.
- Screen time can foster inclusivity: “I will say that screen time does have its advantages,” said Utah mother Jeannie McCoy. “My daughter has autism and before she was given electronics in the classroom, she was failing every class. …Since giving her the ability to write on a device that autocorrects her work, she spends hours writing creative stories. It has been really good for her.” In fact, digital devices and the internet have provided a space where those of varying abilities can better participate.
- Screen time can increase social bonding: Early research on social media's effects linked the use of social media platforms to more negative results. But more recent research finds the real answer to be a little more nuanced. Screen time can both create social bonds or exacerbate isolation. After reviewing a wide variety of research on social media, a recent study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science concluded that "social network sites benefit their users when they are used to make meaningful social connections and harm their users through pitfalls such as isolation and social comparison when they are not.”
While we know technology is changing our brains, there is a clear need for more research in the field. The answer to the screen time debate may still seem muddled, but parents can take solace in the fact that an answer may be coming.