By Dennis Thompson
health day reporter
WEDNESDAY, March 29, 2023 (HealthDay News) — Children’s screen use could alter their developing brains as they enter puberty and increase their risk of mood disorders, a major new study finds.
Children ages 9 and 10 who spend more time on smartphones, tablets, video games and television showed higher levels of depression and anxiety at ages 11 and 12, researchers found.
Additionally, investigators linked some of these mood disorders to actual structural changes in the children’s developing brains, according to the report recently published online Behavioral Addiction Journal.
“There were certain brain mechanisms that contributed in part to this relationship, meaning that statistically, over the two-year period, brain-based changes occurred that mediated the relationship between on-screen media activity in younger children and the internalization of concerns about depression and anxiety two years later,” said lead researcher Dr. Marc Potenza. He is Professor of Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut.
The proportion of mood disorders associated with structural changes in the brain is relatively small, “on the order of 2% to 3%,” Potenza noted.
However, child development experts hailed the study as an important step in fully understanding how excessive screen time affects children.
For the study, Potenza and his colleagues analyzed data from more than 5,100 children participating in the ongoing ABCD (Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development) study. The data included brain scans, psychological assessments and behavioral tracking in these children aged 9 to 10 years.
“This is the first time we’ve had this type of database to study problems of this magnitude, so this is groundbreaking,” said Dr. Cheryl Wills, director of child psychiatry at MetroHealth System in Cleveland. Wills was not involved in the study.
“Basically, this study is the first to begin to examine, or better understand, the processes that may be related to the effects of screen media activity on mental health – how does screen media activity affect brain development and how does it affect the mental health out,” she said.
“Although the results are modest, this is the first structural association with these changes,” added Wills, who is also a board member of the American Psychiatric Association.
Too much screen time?
When researchers looked at the first round of data for 9- and 10-year-olds, they found an association between high screen use and mood disorders, as well as “externalizing” behaviors like aggression and discipline, Potenza said.
They also observed brain structure patterns in these children that were similar to those previously associated with underage drinking, he added.
They then followed the children as they got older to see if the mental health problems persisted and if they correlated with more brain changes.
As 11 and 12-year-olds, the children continued to suffer from depression and anxiety associated with heavy screen use, and their brains had changed in ways that would explain some of these mood disorders.
However, the study did not link the same brain changes to heavy screen use and behavioral problems such as aggression, bullying or defiance.
The observed brain changes affected both the cortical brain regions involved in higher-level processes such as attention or emotional regulation, and subcortical regions related to a person’s drives, Potenza said.
“Given that this pattern of structural variation in the brain has been associated with early engagement in addictive behaviors, it suggests that there may be some elements shared between addictive behaviors in substance use and non-substance use domains – in this one.” Fall screen media activity,” Potenza added.
The ABCD study will continue to track the same children as they age, and future reports should provide even more insight into the effects of screens on brain development, said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association.
“I don’t think most people realize how important puberty is to brain development,” Prinstein said. “We all know that infant brains develop in really important ways, but we may not remember that brain development from ages 12 to 16 is also an incredibly sensitive time.”
Brain changes associated with addiction
“This is the first step and we’ll see how it goes, whether or not it’s consistent throughout the developmental process as children mature into adults, or if this stops at a certain age or gets worse at a certain age,” said Wills. “It helps us understand that this can affect mental health and brain development. And only time will tell how sustainable the changes are, whether or not they change over time and what the results are.”
The post-pandemic world has made it more important than ever to understand the impact screen-based media is having on children, Wills said.
“During the COVID period, much education has shifted to computers and screen media. Although the kids are mostly back in school, teachers are using screens to a greater extent than before,” Wills said. “In the past, you would usually let your child come home and then worry about on-screen media activity, but they are already coming home from school after being exposed at school more than before.”
Many parents try to limit children’s screen activity by using timers to turn off devices when the kids have had enough, Wills said. They also set up other activities, “basically trying to get their kids to focus on things other than the screens.”
In the meantime, Prinstein recommends that parents set a firm 9 p.m. screen time limit.
“We just need that as a rule. We can’t disturb sleep. Sleep is incredibly important for brain development, and the number one reason kids don’t get the recommended amount of sleep is their screens,” Prinstein said.
Parents should also use timers and controls to ensure they limit what kids can do on devices and for how long. “They’re not perfect, but at least it’s a start,” said Prinstein.
Finally, parents need to be open with their children about whether the children themselves feel they are using too much screens.
“We’re seeing a remarkable amount of problematic screen time use,” Prinstein said. “In other words, using screen time looks a bit like an addiction.”
The European Network for Problematic Usage of the Internet looks at the effects of excessive screen use in more detail.
SOURCES: Marc Potenza, MD, PhD, Professor, Psychiatry, Yale School of Medicine Children’s Study Center, New Haven, Connecticut; Cheryl Wills, MD, Director of Child Psychiatry, MetroHealth System, Cleveland, Ohio; Mitch Prinstein, PhD, Chief Science Officer, American Psychological Association; Behavioral Addiction JournalMarch 20, 2023 online