The headline was sensational: “’Horns’ are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.”
As the story went viral, social media exploded in reaction – a heated debate raged on whether the study was accurate – and even Snopes.com, a myth debunking website, weighed in, labeling the claim, “Unproven.”
It may require further research to truly determine if children are indeed sprouting spikes at the bases of their skulls from staring down at their cellphones, but the frenzied media coverage does raise a fair point: How is prolonged screen time affecting children?
“We live in a digital world now and we can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that screen time isn’t a fact of life for today’s kids,” said Dr. Peter Jung, pediatrician and co-founder of Blue Fish Pediatrics in association with Children’s Memorial Hermann. “But I do believe that parents can help their children strike a healthy balance with devices and help them learn how to use technology in a beneficial manner.”
Smartphones and tablets have become ubiquitous in society and children as young as toddlers can be found staring at screens from their perch in high chairs at restaurants. By middle school, many children have cellphones that they tote along to school every day in their backpacks. The explosion of popularity of such digital devices has largely outpaced the scientific research on their health impacts, especially among young people, but more and more studies are trickling out and suggesting that excessive screen time may be hurting kids in more ways than we know.
One study, based on data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, found that children’s brains were actually being altered by spending too much time on their devices. Scientists actually detected differences on the MRI scans of the brains in children who received more than seven hours per day of screen time on their phones – and even those who spent only two hours on their devices logged poorer scores on certain tests.
Still, other studies have suggested that the impact of screen time may extend beyond the brain, leading to physical effects – like increased obesity – or inhibiting a child’s ability to get enough sleep.
Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) made waves when they issued a new set of recommendations, advising parents to limit screen time to only one hour per day for children between the ages of 2 and 5, and to keep screens away altogether from children under the age of 18 months.
For children 6 and older, the AAP recommends taking a measured approach and setting limits to ensure that children get enough sleep and physical activity.
“Cellphones and other devices are a reality for today’s children, whether we like it or not, so I encourage parents to address the issue head on and make sure that their children are using devices responsibly,” Dr. Jung said. “But it’s not enough for us to simply set expectations for our kids. We, too, need to be good role models when it comes to technology usage.”
In order to develop healthy electronic habits, Dr. Jung said he encourages parents to talk to their children regularly about the proper use of cellphones and tablets, carving out times – like family meals and in bedrooms – where phones and other devices aren’t allowed, and interacting with their kids instead of staring at their own screens.
“Go for a walk with your kids, break out a jigsaw puzzle or a board game, or dedicate dinner time to conversation – you’ll find that it not only helps limit some of that unnecessary screen time, but it may also draw you closer together as a family,” Dr. Jung said.