Screens could be damaging your child’s cognition, study reveals

Children’s use of screen time is a hotly debated topic. Some researchers argue children need more screen time, social media platforms, however, feel  exiling young users is beneficial for them and even tech icons like Bill Gates have come forward to admit he doesn’t let his kids use phones. Now, to add even more noise into the conversation, a recent study suggests children may need a lot less screen time — and a lot more active time.

Researchers from several Canadian institutions explored data on the daily activity of 4,524 US children aged between eight and 11, and published their findings in article entitled Associations between 24 hour movement behaviours and global cognition in US children: a cross-sectional observational study. The research used data from the ten-year Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, which began in September 2016.

The children in question were given a questionnaire to monitor the amount of sleep, activity, and screen time they had over the course of a typical 24-hour period. They were then given a cognitive test based on language, memory and attention. The test found that exceeding the recommended amount of screen time had the largest impact on cognitive ability.

It’s recommended that children have nine to 11 hours of sleep per day, alongside an hour or more of physical activity, and less than two hours of screen time. Of the children in the study, 51% met the sleep benchmark, 37% exceeded the screen time limit, and 18% surpassed the activity expectation. While 41% of children hit just one of these guidelines, and 25% hit two, only 5% of the children met all three recommendations. For contrast, 29% met none.

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The questionnaire found that children that met all three recommendations or met the sleep and screen-time recommendations – or just met the screen-time recommendations – performed noticeably better than children who met none of them, or met other combinations of the guidelines. Researchers took this to mean that having two hours or fewer of screen time per day was the largest factor in performing well on the cognitive test.

The article’s co-author, Dr Jeremy Walsh, explained in a podcast that “regardless of content, keeping our screen time to less than two hours per day might be beneficial for cognitive health”. However, Walsh understands that more research still needs to be done: “given the ubiquity of screens, a lot of research should be focusing on how screen type, screen time and content really affects cognition in children”

So, even if a child is watching more than two hours of educational TV, it still may have a negative effect on cognition and mental health. However, given that video games like Fortnite are convincing children to have nine to 11 hours of screen time, and less than two hours sleep, per day, adherence to these guidelines may still be a far cry.

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