The recently published paper covered by “60 Minutes” provided an early glimpse of the anticipated results. A research team, based at the University of California, San Diego, analyzed brain scans from more than 4,500 preteens and correlated those with the children’s amount of screen time (as reported by the children themselves in questionnaires) and their scores on language and thinking tests. The findings were a mixed bag. Some heavy screen users showed cortical thinning at younger ages than expected; but this thinning is part of natural brain maturation, and scientists don’t know what that difference means. Some heavy users scored below the curve on aptitude tests, others performed well.
But the accuracy of self-reported screen time estimates is hard to ascertain. And the association between small differences in brain structure and how people actually behave is even more vague. As a result, researchers effectively are multiplying one uncertain relationship by another, and need to make statistical adjustments. Clear conclusions are extremely hard to come by, and complicated by the fact that a brain scan is no more than a snapshot in time: a year from now, some of the observed relationships could be reversed.
The authors acknowledge as much. “This diversity of findings provides an important public health message, that screen media activity is not simply bad for the brain or bad for brain- related functioning,” they concluded.
In other words, the measured effects may be good, or, more likely, not meaningful at all, until further research demonstrates otherwise.
But surely screen addiction is somehow bad for the brain?
It’s probably both bad and good for the brain, depending on the individual and his or her viewing habits. Many people who are socially isolated, as a result of abuse, personal quirks or developmental differences such as Asperger’s syndrome, establish social networks through their screens that would be impossible to find in person.
Disentangling negative consequences to physical brain development from positive ones will be enormously difficult, given the many other factors potentially in play: the effects of marijuana use, drinking, and vaping, genetic differences, changes at home or school, and the entire emotional storm of adolescence.
Most parents are probably already aware of the biggest downside of screen time: the extent to which it can displace other childhood experiences, including sleep, climbing over fences, designing elaborate practical jokes and getting into trouble. Indeed, many parents — maybe most — watched hours of TV a day themselves as youngsters. Their experiences may be more similar to their children’s then they know.