Screen time can be harmful for brain development: U of A study

WATCH ABOVE: Su-Ling Goh looks into how both exercise and time in front of the TV affect children’s cognitive abilities, plus an update on a story we brought you earlier this week.

EDMONTON – Now more than ever before, kids and parents are using electronic devices.

However, recent studies from a group of Alberta researchers say this may do more harm than good.

Researchers from the Alberta Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Lab are working with children between the ages of two and four, studying how screen time and exercise affect the brain.

While research is ongoing, they’ve discovered that screen time was not linked to any significant positive effect. In fact, more screen time can impair language and cognitive development in young kids.

READ MORE: Exercise during pregnancy may boost newborn brain development: study

“The relationships between screen time are either not there or they’re detrimental,” Dr. Sandra Wiebe said. Wiebe, an assistant professor in psychology, is an ABCD Lab researcher.

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Previous studies have shown that physical activity and reading both have a positive effect on childhood cognitive development.

According to Dr. Valerie Carson, an ABCD researcher and an assistant professor in physical education, an important part of childhood brain development can be traced back to human interaction.

“We know children learn best through interaction; interacting with parents, interacting with caregivers. That’s typically what happens when you read a story with a child,” Carson said.

“We see with the screens, often children are kind of plunked in front of it. Usually the parent is busy, so that interaction tends to decrease when children go on the screens. We think it’s potentially that interaction that’s the main part.”

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The Canadian Pediatric Society recommends children less than two years of age should not use screens.

READ MORE: Cut screen time before sleep to prepare for school: pediatrician

They also recommend limiting screen use to less than an hour a day for kids between ages two and four, and limiting time to less than two hours a day for older kids.

Despite the recommendations, it’s estimated Canadian kids spend an average of six hours per day with either a smartphone, TV, or computer.

While the project has already produced interesting findings, more research still needs to be done. The research team is looking for volunteers to help them with the next step of their study, which monitors children’s cognitive activity by having them play memorization and choice-based games. While playing, children wear a special cap that measures their brain activity.

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READ MORE: Study: Early clue to why some children may have reading woes

Participants also wear a special motion-sensor device, which tracks and records physical activity levels over the course of a week.

The researchers hope to collect more in-depth results than previous studies.

“In our studies, we have a lot of different aspects of cognitive development that we’re looking at,” Wiebe said.

“We’re able to look at how these different abilities grow together. In a lot of previous research, we haven’t been able to do that.”

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For Carson, the next stage of hands-on work is crucial to the lab’s findings.

“We’re taking this body of research and trying to build on it, collecting our own data in children, and getting some really good measures of their cognitive development and their physical activity,” Carson said.

“I think it’s really uncharted territory, because kids are having these new experiences.”