Image by Hannelore Louis from Pixabay

November 11, 2019

 What does the data show us about screen usage in young children? In the Journal JAMA Pediatrics this month, Dr. Hutton and colleagues looked at screen usage in 47 prekindergarten children over a 14 month period. This cross sectional analysis was used to look at the effects of screen usage on brain white matter tracts that are involved in speech and reading.

The authors state: "This study found an association between increased screen-based media use, compared with the AAP guidelines, and lower microstructural integrity of brain white matter tracts supporting language and emergent literacy skills in prekindergarten children." (Hutton et. al. 2019)

The study authors attempted to control for socioeconomic factors that are known to vastly skew results negatively.

What the authors were really looking at was the effects of gaming and video watching on the developing mind. We all know that 99% of screen activity afforded to toddlers and pre kindergarten children is pure gaming and video viewing (even the purported educational types). What the study may really be looking at is how much lost directed reading and teaching time is taken away from the child as the screen babysitter is put more often into play.

The brain is a rapidly changing organ with profound plasticity at the younger ages. When a child is deprived of speech and reading moments with mom and dad, other brain pathways will develop in relation to what events are occurring with said child over time. Think about the skyrocketing incidence of myopia, problems with distance vision, in youth around the developed world. The more you stare at a close up device, the less time you spend looking off into the distance in the outside environment. Thus your brain then perceives the need for stronger close up visual skills thereby sacrificing distance vision. This is simple, real-time based environmental pressures of activity on brain development.

"Conventional wisdom puts the blame for the rise in myopia on reading and staring at computer screens, but little evidence supports that hypothesis. Current thinking holds that people, especially children, spend too little time outside-a handful of studies show that lack of sunlight exposure from long periods indoors correlates with myopia.

Either way, heredity clearly plays a smaller role than previously thought. "Myopia, once believed to be almost totally genetic, is in fact a socially determined disease," says Ian Morgan, an ophthalmology researcher at the Australian National University. The finding suggests an intervention: a recent trial revealed that children who spent an extra 40 minutes outside each day for three years were less likely to become myopic than those who did not." (Kwon D. 2016)

If you actually read between the lines of the above statement, the screen usage is directly taking you away from looking off into the distance in sunlight outside in nature. So, to some extent, screens ARE the problem indirectly for myopia just like they are indirectly removing the brain from reading and speaking.

Unintended consequences of a previously believed benign behavior is a common problem for humans. We often try a new thing in excess only to learn that it is a significant problem.

I, for one, am wholly opposed to:

1) Screens as baby sitters for lazy parents (apologies for the word lazy), but we need to call it what it is when it occurs
2) Screens as the primary teaching method in schools from K to 8th grade. Go back to paper, pencil, handwritten language and interactive pedagogy. These kids will always be smarter than us at hacking and using these screens for unintended teaching sabotage
3) Screens in bedrooms - EVER
4) Screens on all car trips when local and for the bulk of long distance trips. This is a perfect time for conversation and to stare at the horizon or just the beautiful American country side.
5) Having phones/screens at restaurants and places of gathering socially with friends

I highly recommend:

1) Being a devoted and strong parent by saying no to your child's desire to check out of family events and experiences
2) Keeping all screens and especially phones in the kitchen at night
3) Modeling the same behavior by avoiding excessive self screen time
4) Waiting as long as you can before giving your child a phone. Once they have it, the fights will start and persist
5) Encouraging your local schools to minimize the homework and other tasks that force a child to be screen centric

These are all my opinions! I am not holding back my opinions here as I feel so strongly about this topic.

Dr. M


Hutton JAMA Pediatrics Article
Kwon Scientific American Article