Are Screens Really That Bad For Children?

New research shows challenges the perspective that screen time is bad for a child's brain as it emerges that the relationship between screen-based engagement and brain development is nuanced.

Are Screens Really That Bad For Children?

Parents often worry about how screen time affects their children's development. Digital screen media activity has become an integral part of modern life, with children and adolescents spending increasing amounts of time engaging on digital devices. This phenomenon directs towards a growing concern about the potential impact of consistent use of digital devices on children's health and well-being, particularly in the context of brain development. Researchers across the world have generated pieces of evidence to demonstrate the cons of using digital devices.

A recent research however, conducted by a team of experts from top universities, provided a different view and insights into the relationship between screen-based engagement and brain development of children. The findings challenge the predominant perspective that all screen time is bad for a child's brain and contend that the relationship between screen-based engagement and brain development is complex and nuanced.

The research was conducted by a team of researchers from various institutions, including the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, Tillberg University, Netherlands, and the University of Oregon.

The study was part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study, which is a large, multisite, longitudinal study designed to recruit more than 10,000 children and follow them over 10 years into early adulthood. 

The researchers conducted an experiment with kids aged 9 to 12 to understand how different types of screen activities impact their brains. On average, kids were given 26.50 hours of screen time per week. They divided the children into two groups and exposed them to different types of digital content, such as video games, social media, and TV shows.

Group 1 consisted of children who articulated their reaction to shocking incidents well, whereas Group 2 consisted of children who were usually confused during surprises. Group 1 was exposed to low screen engagement using social media platforms and TV shows. Group 2 was exposed to high screen engagement using video games.

The research found that brain stimulation can be influenced by different types of screen activities. Children from Group 1 children did not show a lot of brain enrichment and their exposure to social media and TV did not translate into positive brain development. However, children from Group 2 showed substantial improvement in their brain connectivity and their decision-making during multitasking improved substantially.

What does this mean for parents? The study suggests that not all screen time is equal, and different screen activities have varying effects on the brain. Parents can encourage high-quality video games that promote problem-solving and creativity while limiting exposure to potentially harmful social media platforms and television. This shows that children with somewhat poor reflexes (especially during surprising incidents) can improve their ability to react sharply if they are exposed to good quality video games.

Guidelines for healthy engagement should consider specific screen activities, age, and developmental stage. It is crucial to balance the benefits of digital devices with potential risks to childrens’ health and well-being. 

There are some limitations to the research that should be noted. Over two years, Group 1's patterns remained somewhat consistent, while Group 2's patterns were not. The study did not significantly link screen time to mental health metrics but showed a slight improvement in predicting cognitive outcomes. An exploratory analysis found no significant associations between social media use and cognitive or well-being outcomes. The study did not assess the impact of screen-based engagement on other aspects of children's health and well-being, such as physical activity levels, sleep quality, and social relationships. 

Despite these limitations, the study's findings have important implications for parents, educators, and policymakers who are concerned about the effects of digital devices on young people's health and well-being.

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Shajee is an Associate at the Centre for Education, Skills and Youth at Tabadlab. Shajee's focus is on the intersection between education and technology, aiming to create an education system based on equity. His work is dedicated to improving learning outcomes and fostering opportunities in the education sector. Shajee has an MPhil in Education Leadership and Management from LUMS.