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Neuroscientists tiff over effects of screen time on young brains

During the early years of a human’s life, trillions of brain-cell connections, called synapses, are formed, thanks to jolts of stimulation. As Donald Hebb’s theory rhymes, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

Brain stimulation can come from just about anything, including chatter, outdoor play and, probably, to many parents’ dismay, screens.

The latter was the subject of a heated discussion at the recent Annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego, California.

The debate arose from a study on baby mice, which were exposed to six hours a day of ‘video game’ style lights and sounds for about three months. Following this, their brains were shown to be starkly different from their original states.

Although screen time spats are usually consigned to questions like ‘what?’ and ‘how much?’ this time, disagreement fell to a more biological point. While academics agreed that the brain changes in response to screen-made stimulation, they diverged over whether this is a good or a bad thing.

Dr Jan-Marino Ramirez, the director of the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Hospital, in Washington, which conducted the study, sided with the naysayers.

“Many of those changes suggest that you have a brain that is wired up at a much more baseline excited level,” Ramirez told the US’s National Public Radio. “You need much more sensory stimulation to get [the brain’s] attention.” Ramirez concluded that screen time should be minimised.

On the other hand, Leah Krubitzer, evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis, voiced that whilst there may be drawbacks to copious screen time, the positives outweigh them. Her reasoning? In our hyper-stimulating world, some screen-driven desensitisation could do kids’ good.

An Australian screen time expert, associate professor Sarah Whittle, principal research fellow at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre, sits somewhere in the middle of this dispute. She drew attention to the mice study’s authors, and many others, having stated that ‘what children watch and how they watch is more important than how much they watch.’

Whittle also highlighted the false logic of comparing humans with animals. “We have to remember that the brains of mice and humans are different,” she emphasised. “It’s unlikely that the mice were learning anything from being subjected to TV-type audio-visual stimulation.”

The press conference moderator for the neuroscience meeting, Gina Turrigiano, had an equally nuanced view: “Parents have to be really aware of the fact that each kid is going to respond very, very differently to the same kinds of environments,” Turrigiano said.

Despite screens being ubiquitous amongst youngsters, with the first iPad released just six years ago, research hasn’t caught up to reality. So, for now, screen time principles and the debates surrounding them, remain speculative.

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