What Does Screen Time Do to Developing Brains?

This is a brief overview that looks at several studies that show how screen time affects developing brains and how parents and guardians can limit screen time in their children. Specialties Pediatric Article


What Does Screen Time Do to Developing Brains?

Technology can be a wonderful thing. It allows us to have a wealth of information at our fingertips and has made many tasks easier. But how much screen time is really okay for kids, and what happens if they are getting too much? 

Many children 8 years old and under have their own tablets. Many kids are getting their own smartphones1 between ages 6 and 7.  According to a study2 conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the University at Albany and the New York University Langone Medical Center, children’s average screen time per day increases from 53 minutes at age 12 months to more than 150 minutes by age 3.  This shows that screen habits begin very early in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organizations recommend that children younger than 18 months should avoid screen time other than the use of video chatting3. Children 18-24 months can be introduced to screens through high-quality programming or apps with an adult, but using these by themselves should be avoided. Children 2-5 years old should have no more than 1 hour of screen time per day of high-quality programming. Children 6-12 years old and teenagers should have no more than 2 hours of screen time daily for entertainment. 

Data from a National Institute of Health study4 on screen time and the health and well-being of children and adolescents showed evidence that higher amounts of screen time are associated with a variety of health issues that can be harmful to children and adolescents.  This evidence showed risks for adiposity, unhealthy diets, depressive symptoms, and quality of life.

Another study5 conducted by the National Institute of Health followed 11,000 children at 21 testing sites across the country to assess how screen time impacts their brain development. To conduct the study, children got MRIs of their brains while a screen showed them images from their Instagram accounts. Early data from this study showed negative effects of too much screen time. Children who spent more than two hours a day on screens scored lower on language and thinking tests. Children who spent more than 7 hours a day of screen time showed shrinking of the brain’s cortex, which is the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning. While they are still determining what the results mean, physicians are concerned that screens narrow a child’s focus of interest. While children used to learn by exploring, kids are spending much more time on screens, and are harder to engage in non-electronic activities that foster imagination and creativity and allow them to develop necessary social skills by playing with other children.

Studies6 have shown that children under 2 learn better from another person than they do from watching a video. Children don’t understand the content on screens until after age 2, although the colors and music on the screen may catch their attention. Language development happens between ages 1-3. Children learn language best when they are interacting with adults and other children who are talking and playing with them. Talking with children and sharing facial expressions with them in your conversations is crucial in the development of language and communication. This is something that children can’t get from interacting with a screen. Children who watch a lot of television in the early years have also shown to score lower on reading tests and have a more difficult time holding their attention.

Sleep6 can also be affected by the use of screens. Our circadian rhythm and production of melatonin begin when the sun sets. However, the blue light from screens inhibits the production of melatonin which can then delay sleep. Our brains are more alert and activated when we are watching tv, playing games, or on our phones and tablets.  When we do these activities right before bed, we feel less ready for sleep. The closer the blue light to our face, the more our melatonin production is suppressed, making activities with our smartphones and tablets cause more issues with sleep. Having a lack of sleep may then affect behavior and cognitive performance, which may interfere with learning. Studies have shown that excessive screen time and sleep deprivation are linked to obesity, which can lead to low self-esteem and other mental health disorders. 

To try to minimize screen time for your children, parents and guardians can implement some strategies6. While it can be convenient to allow your children to have screen time so you can get other things done, it is recommended that you co-watch whenever possible. This allows you to help them understand what they are watching and gives them an opportunity to engage with you and ask you questions. Bedtime and mealtimes should be screen-free times to help balance online and offline time. Set a good example by also limiting your own screen and phone use. Incorporate healthy lifestyle habits that focus on good sleep, healthy nutrition, and exercise. Setting these boundaries and examples can help develop healthy daily routines while also limiting screen time. 


1Do 6-year-olds need cell phones?

2High amounts of screen time begin as early as infancy, NIH study suggests

3What do we really know about kids and screens?

4Effects of screentime on the health and well-being of children and adolescents: a systematic review of reviews

5The NIH Is MRI-ing Kid’s Brains While They Instagram to Study the Effects of Screen Time

6What Does Too Much Screen Time Do to Children’s Brains?

Rachael is a nurse with over 14 years of experience. She has expertise in medical/surgical nursing, cardiology, primary care, management, and most recently as a nurse educator. She enjoys writing health content articles that educate the reader on a variety of topics. When she is not working or writing, she enjoys spending time with her family.

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