Reading vs screen time: How do they affect your child’s brain?

Famous billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg are known to have restricted the screen time of their children. They encourage their children to read or go outside to play. For years, researchers at the National Institute of Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other institutions have said that limiting the screen time of young children could have a profound impact on their health and well-beings. In this reading vs screen time comparison, let’s dive into how they affect your child’s brain development, backed by scientific proof.

Reading vs screen time: What scientists found

According to the World Health Organization, children under the age 5 are highly vulnerable to smartphones, tablets, and other screens. The excessive screen time gets in the way of going outside, reading, playing with toys, and using imagination. Limiting the screen time of children during their formative years and reading to them would boost their brain development, according to scientists.

A team of researchers led by John Hutton conducted a study to find out how reading and screen time affect brain development in children. Findings of the study were published in ACTA Paediatrica and JAMA Pediatrics.

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The study was conducted at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Researchers examined the white matter in the brains of 27 girls and 20 boys between the ages of three and five. The kids had not yet started kindergarten.

For the reading study, researchers asked how much the caregivers read to children, the interactions during reading sessions, and the type of content. For the screen time study, they looked into 15 measures such as the access to screens, frequency of screen used, content viewed, and whether the children watched content with the parents.

Then researchers imaged the children’s brains using diffusion tensor MRI, which provides a better look at the white matter.

In the brain scans of children that were read to regularly, there was noticeable growth in organized white matter in the language and literacy areas of the brain. The language and literacy areas support learning in school. John Hutton said their white matter was more organized and developed.

In contrast, children who spent an average of two hours a day playing on screens showed massively disorganized and underdeveloped white matter in the language and literacy areas of the brain. There was a direct correlation between increased screen time and “lower microstructural integrity” of the white matter.

For the uninitiated, the brain’s white matter is the tissue made up of nerve fibers. It coordinates communication between different parts of the brain. A developed and organized white matter is critical to the ability of your brain’s different parts to communicate with one another. If it is underdeveloped and disorganized – as seen in the brain scans of children who spent excessive time on screens – it slows down the brain’s learning and processing speed.

During their formative years, children have more neurons than in any other stage of life. On top of that, the brain is extremely efficient in the first five years, said Hutton. The different types of stimulation children get reinforce the connections between neurons.

Children who have more stimulating experiences – reading, playing outside, playing with toys, and using imagination – are “at a huge advantage when they get to school,” said Hutton. Kids whose brains are not as well developed find it hard to catch up. Reading to children allows their brains to develop connections for language and language processing.

Children participating in the study were also given cognitive tests. The cognitive tests revealed that those who used screens more than one hour a day tested lower on the ability to rapidly name objects, had a lower ability to use expressive language, and their emerging literacy skills were poor. Children who were read to by their caregivers performed particularly well on cognitive tests.

What should you read to your child?

Researchers added that it didn’t matter what type of content caregivers read to children. The important thing was “just showing up and doing it – reading to your child on a regular basis.” It should alleviate the pressure on parents to find the right book. “Just keep reading in a loving and consistent way,” said Hutton.

The World Health Organization recommends absolutely no screen time for children under the age of 2. Caregivers should engage in storytelling and reading during sedentary time. For 3-4 years old children, the screen time should not be more than 60 minutes. However, the recommendations were not based on concrete scientific proof.