3–5 Year Olds, Stop Reading Now. Everyone Else: Hello, Too Late For You

Recent research gives a glimpse at the effects of screen time on developing brains.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
Two recent studies show infant brains are harmed by screen time
Daniela Jovanovska-Hristovska via Getty

Two recent studies from researchers with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital used special MRI scans to show how developing brains are improved by reading, and absolutely scrambled by staring at screens. Researchers examined the integrity of white brain matter in children between ages of 3 and 5. (More development and organization of the white matter is key to developmental milestones like word comprehension and speech.)


Both studies were centered around complicated, science-y scores that essentially measure how well parents adhere to recommended guidelines for reading and screen time use. And both studies had significant and unsurprising results: In the screen time study, the brains of kids who strayed further from recommended screen guidelines were less primed for learning than those who got less screen time. And in the reading-focused study, kids who were often read to had brains better prepared to learn.

I’m not a child between the ages of 3 and 5, per se; scientifically speaking, my brain isn’t developing at the rapid pace of an infant’s……… But seeing the MRI scans included in each study sent me into a small panic. My own infancy occured long enough ago that screens weren’t as readily available as they are to kids today. But, like most of my peers, I’ve also spent my entire life since roughly age 14 staring at a series of screens. During any average workday, I look at a screen for at least eight hours, occasionally taking breaks to simply look at another screen, until I eventually go home and look at yet another screen or two! Just yesterday, while stuck at home sick, I watched that new Cheer docu-series not once, but twice. (Count ‘em, buckos: that’s 12 hours of TV!!!!) Am I taking a pick axe to all that nicely developed white matter, regressing at a pace that will eventually render me unable to learn anything new? Did I peak, intellectually, at age 5, when I spent far more time having books read to me than I did scrolling through social media while bingeing Netflix?

I’m not a “brain scientist,” so it’s hard to say. But I am newly re-encougared, in this, the third week of 2020, to adhere to my resolution of “reading instead of watching TV.”

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