Research has failed to identify any clinical impact of screen time use
Photo: Ketut Subiyanto. Pexels.

We should not be fooled by the “neuro-myth” that digital media damage children’s brains

By Andreas Lieberoth and , | November 2021 

The myth is unfounded, but time on devices should not squeeze play, sleep, learning, and family meals out of childhood.

When children have been outside playing football, bicycling, or running around with friends, consider offering them extra time on their screens. Maybe you could even suggest another gaming session.

It might sound strange to encourage children to spend more time on their phones, laptops, or computer consoles. But a large body of research has identified nothing intrinsically damaging about these activities, provided they do not displace sleep, exercise, schooling, and healthy eating. In short, screen time does not in itself turn children into gambling addicts or overweight, uneducated zombies. And provided children are kept safe, using social media is also okay.

Bad outcomes are much more likely to be caused by eating poorly, missing out on learning, spending too much time on the sofa, or not resting enough. So a parent’s most productive focus should be to encourage physical activity, sleep, good nourishment, and learning – and make sure that time online is not getting in the way of those healthy activities.

Fears of digital media unjustified

Research has failed to justify the understandable fears of many parents who are concerned by the sudden changes over the past two decades in how childhood is lived. It is difficult to identify any clinically relevant impacts of the increased use of screens or social media. Where slight effects are found, they are drowned out by the established effects – such as genetics, socioeconomic circumstances, time adults spend with children, and parental education – that we have known, for 50 years, determine child development.

However, research does demonstrate that children are more likely to respect family rules about good ways to live when those rules are developed though sound and shared reasoning, and when they respect children’s perspectives and as well as adults’ preferences. Children can recognize parents’ wishes for them to have enough sleep, keep fit, learn and eat properly, and spend family time together. However, very strict rules, focussing on a prescribed number of minutes for this or that activity, can lead to added secrecy on the part of a child. They can also damage a child’s trust that their parents will be able to help and understand them, should they, for instance, encounter distressing experiences online.

As a trained neuroscientist, I want parents to follow the science. However, unevidenced “neuro-myths” – often really fears masquerading as science – are now used to justify concerns about children’s screen time. This is understandable. In just a few years, the digital world has disrupted traditional childhood by taking a distinctive place – and considerable time – in children’s upbringing. We did not have iPads in the home until 10 years ago. Internet bandwidth could not support online gaming 15 years ago. Seemingly overnight, gaming has become a cultural mainstay. Social media are everywhere. People are understandably worried about the impacts.

Inevitably, scientific research has lagged in providing reliable evidence about the effect of this dramatic shift. How do scientists prove the long-term impact of something that has not existed for very long? It takes time and science has been predictably slow to reach a conclusion.

The foundation of “neuro-myths”

As a result, people initially sought answers in other fields that seemed relevant. Alert to the psychological rewards computer gaming offers children, they explored studies on outcomes for children who are unable to defer gratification – the so-called marshmallow experiment. They also looked to more gloomy studies of children’s television viewing back in the 1980s and 1990s, and to research on rats allowed to administer dopamine-stimulating drugs to themselves. This work appeared to justify fears that exposure to digital media undermined children’s capacities to concentrate and led them to live more sedentary lives.

But time has demonstrated that these analogies are false and misleading. It turns out that children’s attitudes about marshmallows and lab rats doing drugs do not offer useful insights into the impacts of screen time. Research has not identified the kinds of screen time used today, in itself, as correlated with diminished general cognitive control, capacities to concentrate, or physical well-being. A recent review found the effects of screen time today to be quite similar to those of television time in the 1950s.

Moreover, scientists now better understand that the research into high levels of television viewing was not particularly instructive about the impacts of television viewing, even back in the 1990s. Closer examination showed that this research really told us more about the socioeconomic circumstances of different families: The prevalence of high levels of viewing was skewed toward low-income families. These families tended to have smaller homes, less outside space, a culture of having the television on more often than more privileged groups, and fewer alternative activities. Poverty and lack of opportunity were preventing healthier childhoods; TV usage was largely a symptom, rather than a cause, of the deprivation.

It is difficult to identify any clinically relevant impacts of the increased use of screens or social media.

Research does not find brain damage

Studies also show few, and only slight, correlations between children’s use of social media and their general well-being or mental distress symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Research has found nothing of this nature for boys. In girls, there is a slight relationship between time on social media and psychological distress. But it is small – as a comparative example, wearing glasses seems more damaging to a female teenager’s social well-being than spending a lot of time on social media, according to the same datasets.

Impact of screen time

Photo: Emily Wade. Unsplash.

Young children’s low exposure

Our research should also reassure parents who may be concerned that young children are exposed to high levels of screen time. We measured the time children are on digital media in Danish kindergartens, where they typically spend about five to eight hours each weekday between the ages of 3 and 6. In general, children were exposed to digital media about five to 10 minutes on these days in the kindergarten environment, which we generally view as a good thing. Technology is part of the world in which children live and provides teachable moments, even for the young ones.

Let us assume that, on weekdays, some children spend another two hours a day of digital time at home, perhaps in the early evening when they are tired, allowing parents time to finish housework and emails. This means that, on most days, these young children’s lives are about 90 percent free of digital inputs. It is understandable that parents might still be worried because much of that time is during the few hours in the evening when children are at home – probably feeling cranky and tired – before they go to bed. However, our research, which looked across the children’s days, suggests that parents should worry less about minutes and hours; young Danish children still have ample opportunities to develop in other ways.

Risk of gambling addiction

Some parents are concerned that their children will become addicted to gambling through their exposure as children to digital media and gaming. Studies have not found causal connections between such use and a greater risk of gambling addiction in typical populations. However, we studied children whose parents were worried about the general effect of gaming on their offspring, and then compared them with children who parents were not worried. We found that the brains of the two groups of children were indistinguishable. But the children with worried parents experienced more stress and conflict between their wishes to game and their need to sleep, do homework, and have dinner with their parents.

It makes sense to worry about preserving lifestyles that we know are good for children – playing, time with friends, being outside – but unwise to confuse this desire with unjustified and unevidenced arguments about the dangers that digital media pose to children’s brains.

Encouraging rather than controlling children

Other research shows that the more restrictive and reactive parenting styles are around media use, the less children internalize and respect parents’ reasons. A more effective strategy is one in which children feel that their wishes and interests are being understood, and they can share their parents’ reasoning about the need for exercise, sleep, and education rather than be part of a strategy based on a groundless fear of digital media.

In a study at the Interacting Minds Centre in Aarhus, Denmark, my colleague Stine Strøm Lundsgård and I found that the parents who were the most worried about digital media were those who placed the most value on different kinds of play. The parents who were most concerned that their children enjoy a traditional upbringing – for example, playing outside with other children – tended to be the ones most worried about screen time. These parents had a strong sense of what constitutes a good childhood and they feared that screen time was displacing it.

This is a very reasonable concern. It makes sense to worry about preserving lifestyles that we know are good for children – playing, spending time with friends, being outside. Parents are right to focus of the importance of these aspects of childhood; they should concentrate on the merits of such childhoods and encourage those shared values in their children. But they would be unwise to confuse this desire with unjustified and unevidenced arguments about the dangers that digital media pose to children’s brains.

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