Huge New Study Will Track Effects of Screen Time on Kids' Brains

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Already the National Institutes of Health has found "significant differences" in the brains of children who spend excessive time online.

Anywhere you go, you will see children and teens with tablets or smartphones in their hands. Riding in cars, sitting at restaurant tables, lounging beside a pool, or hanging out with friends at the park, kids and screens have become inseparable. For those of us who grew up without handheld devices always within reach and have memories of carefree, unplugged childhoods, this connection can feel alarming. One can't help wondering, is it OK for kids to be so attached to their devices?

This question is just one of many that the National Institutes of Health hopes to answer over the next decade. It has launched a huge, first-of-its-kind study that will follow 11,000 American children at 21 sites across the country, trying to discover how screen time affects the physical structure of kids' brains, as well as their emotional development and mental health.

A preliminary screening of 4,500 participants has already found some cause for concern. MRIs revealed "significant differences in the brains of some kids who use smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day." Researcher Dr. Gaya Dowling told CBS News,

"The colors show differences in the nine and ten-year-olds' brains. The red color represents premature thinning of the cortex. That's the wrinkly outermost layer of the brain that processes information from the five senses. That's typically thought to be a maturational process. So what we would expect to see later is happening a little bit earlier."

Dowling says they're not yet sure if this can be fully attributed to excessive screen time, and won't know until more years of research have been completed, but other data tell a similar story. Interviews with participating children show that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens score lower on thinking and language tests.

There is an underlying unease among psychologists as to how screen time affects children. Dr. Dmitri Christakis, who is also on the NIH research team and was involved in updating the American Academy of Pediatrics' media guidelines that now recommend toddlers have zero screen time aside from video calling, told CBS News why screens are so harmful to young brains.

"What we do know about babies playing with iPads is that they don't transfer what they learn from the iPad to the real world, which is to say that if you give a child an app where they play with virtual Legos, virtual blocks, and stack them, and then put real blocks in front of them, they start all over... They don't transfer the knowledge from two dimensions to three."

Dr. Christakis described another scenario in which toddlers were given three toys – first a plastic guitar, then an iPad that played musical notes, and finally an iPad with an app that rewarded kids with lights, colors, and sounds. The research assistant asked the child to give back each toy at a specific time, and 66 percent of kids using the traditional toy and the music-playing iPad did. But when it came to the final iPad, only 45 percent would relinquish it. Why? "It's that much more engaging."

That's where the concerns about addiction come in. Tristan Harris, a former Google manager who shed light on how app designers vie for kids' attention, thinks parents do not understand the complexities of what their offspring are dealing with. Even if they are worried, they may feel helpless, not understanding the tools that exist to limit time spent on apps (which have been abysmally slow in development).

Raising kids has always been a daunting and frightening task throughout history, but the stakes feel higher when brain development is potentially at risk. It is good to know that scientists are taking screen time seriously, and hopefully the NIH's work will be revealing and influential.