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New study to examine impact screen time has on kids’ brains

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SEATTLE - A  groundbreaking new study about the impact of screen time on adolescent brains has many parents thinking.

The study is being conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It’s called The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study.

It will use advanced brain imaging to examine the brain’s affects to screen time and other factors.When it comes to debate over screen time, Emily Cherkin gets it.

“I come to this work not just an educator but also as a parent,” she said.

As former teacher and a mother of a 10-year-old and 7-year-old, her focus turned to technology and the affect it has on young brains.

“I firmly believe that I’m fighting for my children’s cognitive, social, and emotional health,” said Cherkin.

A few years ago, Cherkin became “The Screentime Consultant." Cherkin goes to different schools and meets with parents about the issue of screen time for their kids.

“The smartphone came out 11 years ago, and the iPad is only six years old," she said. "We don’t have longitudinal data to say what long term impacts are."

But results could be coming in a few years.

The NIH has just launched the most ambitious study of adolescent brain development when it comes to screen time. More than 11,000  nine-and-ten year old kids will be tracked for ten years. MRI’s will track the brain development.

According to initial results, spending more than seven hours daily on smartphones and tablets may change the structure of a child's brain.

The results aren’t surprising for Cherkin.

“I think parents and schools are up against a big challenge to figure out what is the balance, what is enough,” she said. “When kids are spending time on screens, it is time spent not doing something else.”

According to Cherkin, finding that balance starts at home. It all comes down to your values, she said.

“How does technology fit into that value," she said. "So, does that mean that mom and dad get to be looking at their social media or texting during dinner? Because that’s modeling for your kids. It’s very easy to tell our kids to turn off devices and stop looking at their social media, when in fact, we adults are pretty culpable for all of the screen time stuff.”

And what role do developers play in all of this.

“I think the tech industry has a huge responsibility," said Alexis Hiniker, a University of Washington assistant professor of human-computer interaction. "And I think they’re aware of that. And struggling with that,”

Professor Hiniker works with tech companies to make positive and worth while programs and apps for education. She is encouraged by what the NIH study may find.

“How do we make experiences with technology that are positive for kids, both in the moment and in the long-term,” she said. “Just helping them create products where their goals are providing positive experiences and not about holding kids attention as long as possible.”

That remains a challenge, she said. She said there are many benefits for technology.

“I think there’s a lot to be gained from spending time with programs for learning, for collaboration, for togetherness,” she said.

It comes to how the information is presented. Hiniker cites a recent UW study that provided video players to preschoolers. Researchers gave the kids different versions of the video player. In some cases where auto-play wasn’t engaged, and didn’t play more related videos,  the kids were more apt to follow directions, said Hiniker.

“But when auto-play was turned on, kids were less likely to  turn off the screen. They watched more videos. They were more likely to fight with their parents,” she said.

For Cherkin though, she advocates a ‘less is more’ attitude for both parents and kids.

“The benefit of face-to-face communication, you can`t replace that. You can’t teach empathy through an app,” she said.

Some of the steps you can take include, having screen-free bedrooms, deleting social media apps, turning off notifications, and tracking your own usage.

Cherkin also suggests parents and schools need to ask three critical questions when it comes to technology.

  • What do we gain?
  • What do we lose or replace with technology?
  • What do we model?

“I think it really depends on parenting style, what works for your family, age of the kid. But I do advocate that less is more, and delay, delay, delay, when it comes to smartphones,” she said.

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