Kate Silverton: The Science Of What Screentime Does To Our Children’s Brains – And Behaviour

As adults, we're slowly waking up to the negative impact screens have on our lives. So why is the amount of time our children is spending on screens increasing?

Kids and screentime

by Kate Silverton |
Published on

When he introduced the first iPhone in 2007, the then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs, said, ‘Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along and changes everything.’ He was right. Smartphones have radically changed how we think, work, play and communicate.

It is interesting, however, that Steve Jobs was among tech moguls like Google CEO Sundar Pichai, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya and Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel who all restrict the access their children have to devices.

According to Walter Isaacson, author of Steve Jobs, dinner in the Jobs household was held ‘at the big long table in their kitchen, discussing books and history and a variety of things. No one ever pulled out an iPad or computer. The kids did not seem addicted at all to devices.’

The reference to ‘addiction’ is interesting because smartphones and screens are designed to make addicts of us – and our children. The content we can access via smartphones, and the way we consume it, taps into the brain’s dopamine-driven feedback loop that keeps us hooked. Social media sites are designed to activate similar mechanisms in the brain as slot machines, and even cocaine.

Successful sales of books like Catherine Price’s How to Break up with Your Phone suggest we are slowly waking up to the negative impact on our time, our sleep, our sense of self, our attention and our mental health. Yet the amount of time our children are spending on screens is increasing. The lockdown policy during the Covid pandemic served to increase children’s screen usage significantly; a Harris Poll survey in 2020 found nearly seven in ten parents of five- to 17-year-olds said their children’s screentime had increased, and 60% felt they ‘have no choice but to allow it.’

One global analysis found primary school children’s screentime had increased by an extra hour and 20 minutes a day on average. But what is all this screentime doing to our children’s brains – and behaviour?

Early data from a landmark National Institutes of Health (NIH) study that began in 2018 indicates that children who spent more than two hours a day on screentime activities scored lower on language and thinking tests. And some children with more than seven hours a day of screentime experienced thinning of the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain related to critical thinking and reasoning.

Certainly, there is enough research emerging for us to question the wisdom of sitting our children passively in front of a screen for long periods. Carlota Nelson is the director of Brain Matters, a feature documentary about early brain development. Writing for UNICEF, she concludes: ‘Unlike reading books which gives time for children to process words, images and voices, the constant absorption of on-screen images and messages affects a child’s attention span and focus.’

She adds that ‘screens curtail the ability to control impulses given children need their dose of boredom. It teaches them how to cope with frustration and control their impulses. If young children are constantly being stimulated by screens, they forget how to rely on themselves or others for entertainment.’

We know that the more we repeat an activity, the more our brain changes in accordance. In 1949, the neuropsychologist Donald Hebb explained how pathways in the brain are formed and reinforced through repetition. He coined the phrase ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’.

My father was a London taxi driver. To gain his licence, he had to pass something called ‘the Knowledge’. It involved years of dedication, driving around the labyrinth of London’s 25,000 streets, committing them all to memory. In 2000, a team of neuroscientists at University College London published a study, having followed 79 aspiring taxi drivers for four years. Their research revealed that the successful candidates’ hippocampus (part of the baboon memory bank) was larger than those candidates who had dropped out. Neurobiologist Howard Eichenbaum of Boston University observed of the study, ‘It shows you can produce profound changes in the brain with training. That’s a big deal.’

It is indeed a big deal, and something to consider as our children – with their still-immature brains – spend increasingly significant portions of their day passively staring or scrolling on a screen. For just as neurons that fire together, wire together, so the opposite is also true.

There are increasing moves to raise awareness of the addictive nature and the distraction of screens and smartphones. Parent-led groups like www.safescreens.org campaign want to see cigarette-style health warnings about screentime and all smartphone-related advertisements.

One of the most common arguments against regulation is that it should be for parents to monitor and restrict use. But, as you will know, screentime can be hard to police, and especially if you have a child nearing primary school leaving age when peer pressure to have a phone is a powerful thing. Children for whom social settings might be overwhelming can find comfort and solace in peer relationships they make online and certainly there are games and apps that I know many children enjoy from both an academic and recreational point of view.

More research is needed to clarify what might constitute ‘healthy’ or otherwise amounts of time on a screen for older children. Without more specific and formal guidance for our primary-aged children, it leaves parents to decide what is right for their children. I know from personal experience how hard it can be to establish boundaries around screentime now they are used increasingly for homework as well as in play.

This is not to ignore benefits of screens; they can help us out when we’re busy, and half an hour of our children watching something age-appropriate and fun can give us all a much-needed moment of quiet. Our smartphones and screens can be social life savers too when our loved ones live far away and for children who might seek more connections outside of school. Who hasn’t enjoyed Face-Timing family around the world during birthdays, or holding up our phones so Grandma can watch our children race on sports day?

So, what can we do to ensure the time our children spend on their screens is as reasonable as can be?

For older children it can be helpful to talk about the research, and in an age-appropriate manner, we can speak to our children about their brain and the stimulus it needs to grow healthily for the future. You could speak to your child about how their brain changes with the activities they do. Just as they will get good playing the piano, or learning to read when they do a ‘little and often’, so their brain can get ‘lazy’ if they are sat passively staring at a screen.

If your children push back, explain just as it is your job to keep them physically safe, it is your job to ensure that their brain develops safely and healthily too. Many parents tell me of the struggle they have to remove their children’s screens, and one mother even sent me a video of the ‘tantrum’ her five-year-old son had when she threatened to take his screen away. The distress our children display when we remove these ‘objects of desire’ is real. They are not being ‘naughty’ when they scream and shout. Recognising that screen use releases dopamine in the brain and negatively impacts impulse control helps us to be compassionate and realistic. If our children are now addicted, they need our help to be ‘weaned off’.

Physician Dr Kathryn Lorenz observes: ‘If there’s a struggle over stopping screen use, that’s usually a warning sign that they’re fairly addicted to it and their brains are really craving it.’

Be compassionate with your children if you have previously allowed them screentime but are now considering how best to reduce it. You might start by introducing a time limit (or removing them if you can) during the week, and a time limit at weekends – explaining why.

We don’t want to set ourselves up against our children. But we do need to recognise that we have given them access to a device that is designed to be addictive. Our children are not responsible for creating the addiction, we are.

We can also, if we are honest (!), recognise that addiction in ourselves. Part of successfully limiting our children’s screentime is about setting a good example. Turning off the TV and putting our own phones away in front of our children is much more effective for modelling the behaviour we want to see.

THERE’S STILL NO SUCH THING AS ‘NAUGHTY’: Parenting the Primary Years by Kate Silverton is published by Lagom.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us