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Infant screen time may have long-term negative effects

A new study links greater exposure to screen time as a baby to cognitive decline at age 9

Infant screen time may have long-term negative effects

As parents of young children know, babies are drawn to video screens like moths to light. While it seems impossible to avoid exposure, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no digital media for babies younger than 18 months.

A new study provides neural evidence that infant screen time is associated with harmful, long-term effects. Published Jan. 30 in Jama Pediatrics, the study found that excessive screen time at age 1 resulted in altered brain activity. The researchers also found a correlation between early screen time and cognitive decline later in childhood.

Christian doctors and bioethicists were not surprised by the study’s findings. Recognizing the challenges of rearing children in the age of smartphones, they highlighted some ways technology can be particularly damaging to kids’ development.

The research team, which included scientists from Singapore, Canada, and the United States, examined 437 children enrolled in the Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes cohort study. After parents reported their 1-year-old babies’ average daily screen time, the children were divided into four groups: less than 1 hour, 1-2 hours, 2-4 hours, or more than 4 hours per day. The average amount reported was approximately 2 hours per day.

A subset of 157 children underwent an electroencephalogram (EEG) test at 18 months. The EEG test, which measures electrical activity in the brain, showed higher incidence of low frequency waves (“theta waves”) for children with greater digital media exposure. Theta brain waves indicate lowered alertness, and have been linked to daydreaming, relaxation, and sleep.

To determine if screen time during infancy had any long-term effects, all the kids in the study participated in several cognitive ability tests at age 9. These tests measured things like attention span, working memory, and follow-through. Every hour increase in infant screen time was associated with a statistically significant decrease in their cognitive test scores.

The researchers noted that screen time is one of many factors influencing an infant’s environment. Family factors such as the quality of the parent-child relationship and socioeconomic status could also contribute to the relationship between early screen use and cognitive decline later in childhood.

Dr. Rosemary Stein, a pediatrician in Burlington, N.C., and a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations, said she frequently sees screen-addicted toddlers at her clinic. Stein voiced concern that these kids are unaware of their surroundings. Giving the example of a trip to Walmart, Stein explained how zoning out means missing everyday learning opportunities. A child looking at his mom’s smartphone while she shops won’t notice what his mom is buying, and misses social cues like which fellow shoppers are friendly. “If [a child’s] mind is engaged in a phone, they can’t be engaged otherwise,” Stein said.

Stein thinks it also matters how babies and young children interact with digital media. Based on her experience, she’s found that the more personalized the screen, the worse the effect. A child playing individually on a tablet or phone is more harmful than a group of children watching television together, for example.

Michael Sleasman, who teaches a course on Technology, Ethics & Society at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said the study highlights the importance of waiting to introduce children to digital devices. While older toddlers can use technology, especially as an educational tool, infants lack the mental capacity to fully process information presented on a two-dimensional screen.

Sleasman also expressed concerns about children—and parents—using digital devices to disengage from reality. Children will imitate their parents’ use of technology, which makes it important for parents to encourage what he calls “digital literacy.” As children approach school age, parents should talk about how to appropriately use technology. “We want to foster behaviors that don’t allow technology to replace things like play and physical activity—imaginative play, physical play, these sorts of things,” he said.

Sleasman hopes future research explores how the relationship between parent and infant might influence screen time. “It’s not maybe just the screen time, but it’s also the quality of the ways in which the parents are interacting with their children,” he said. Stein would like to see a follow-up study in which the same children’s screen time is curbed to see if some cognitive impairment is reversed.

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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