Infants With Long Screen Time May Experience Cognitive Decline

Families which let their children have more screen time might be experiencing food or housing challenges.

AsianScientist (Feb. 21, 2023) – Infants and children spending long hours staring at phones could experience decline in their cognitive abilities and these effects continue even after they are eight years old, suggests a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics. 

“In a country like Singapore, where parents work long hours and kids are exposed to frequent screen viewing, it’s important to study and understand the impact of screen time on children’s developing brains,” said Michael Meaney, professor and programme director, Translational Neuroscience Programme at Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences, who lead the study.  

It’s a collaborative study between researchers from Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore; A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences (SICS), National Institute of Education and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Singapore;  McGill University, Montreal;  and Harvard Medical School. The researchers gathered data of 506 children enlisted in GUSTO (Growing Up in Singapore towards Healthy Outcomes)–Singapore’s largest birth cohort study, between November 2010 and March 2020. 

This study adds to the growing evidence showing negative impact of excessive screen time on children’s cognitive development. For example, a study from Georgetown University  in 2010 and another from the University of Birmingham and Cambridge a decade later reported that long hours of television viewing by infants and children in their preschool years (6 months to 4 years old) impaired their cognitive and executive functions. Executive functions include the cognitive skills essential to sustain attention, process information and regulate emotional states.

The researchers in the GUSTO based study classified children into four groups based on screen time they were exposed to per day – less than one hour, one to two hours, two to four hours and more than four hours. The researchers also collected brain activity data at 18 months of age using electroencephalography (EEG), a highly sensitive tool which tracks changes in brain activity. Besides undergoing EEG, each child participated in various cognitive ability tests. For infants exposed to longer duration of screen time, the EEG readings corresponded with poorer attention control or lack of cognitive alertness, stated the study. 

The study says that excessive screen time is one of the many environmental factors interfering with executive function development in infants and children.

“These findings from the GUSTO study should not be taken lightly because they have an impact on the potential development of future generations and human capital,” said Chong Yap Seng, dean of NUS Medicine and chief clinical officer, SICS. “With these results, we are one step closer towards better understanding how environmental influences can affect the health and development of children. This would allow us to make more informed decisions in improving the health and potential of every Singaporean by giving every child the best start in life.” 

Prior research suggests that infants have trouble processing information on a two-dimensional screen. When watching a screen, the infant is bombarded with a stream of fast-paced movements, ongoing blinking lights and scene changes, which require ample cognitive resources to make sense of the changes. That overwhelms the brain, which then finds it hard to leave adequate resources for itself to mature in cognitive skills such as executive functions.

Researchers were also concerned that families which allow very young children to have long hours of screen time often face additional challenges such as food or housing insecurity. More research is needed to understand why children end up having excessive screen time, researchers said. 

“The study provides compelling evidence to existing studies that our children’s screen time needs to be closely monitored, particularly during early brain development,” added Evelyn Law from NUS Medicine and SICS’s Translational Neuroscience Programme.

Source: Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), Singapore ; Image: Shutterstock

The article can be found at Associations Between Infant Screen Use, Electroencephalography Markers, and Cognitive Outcomes

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Aatreyee Dhar is an independent environment journalist based in India.

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