Published January 2020 | JAMA Pediatrics

The study was one of the most-discussed findings of the year from Cincinnati Children’s. When researchers led by John Hutton, MD, MS, reported the first evidence linking screen time and brain development in preschoolers, the findings sparked headlines in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, Fox News and other media—plus a call from Ohio’s First Lady Fran DeWine.

The MRI-based study found significant associations between higher screen-based media use and lower micro-structural integrity in major white matter tracts (the brain’s “wiring”) along with lower cognitive abilities supported by these tracts, specifically vocabulary, rhyming, processing speed and composite early literacy skills.

Despite the ubiquity of digital technology, “the human brain is essentially an analog organ that has evolved over millennia to process the real world in a multi-sensory way and to learn in social contexts involving other humans, particularly language,” explains Hutton, director of the Reading & Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s.

While older children may be able to adapt, the American Academy of Pediatrics and World Health Organization recommend limiting screen time for young children to reduce risks of language delay, poor sleep, and impaired academic performance.

Getting 49 young children to sit still for an MRI was “a major challenge,” Hutton says. But thanks to the skilled efforts of imaging staff, the team gathered the data they needed. Researchers quantified screen use with ScreenQ, a novel tool developed by Hutton and colleagues.

While some news reporters asked whether the white matter changes were signs of “brain damage,” a more likely explanation is displacement of more constructive experiences at this critical age. “Children with more screen time may spend less time engaging in multi-sensorial play, using their imaginations, playing outside, or reading and talking with caregivers,” Hutton says.