Kids, tech

Kids Screen Time & Structural Brain Changes

As a parent of 10 and 13 year olds, this headline caused a double take: “GROUNDBREAKING STUDY DISCOVERS AN ASSOCIATION BETWEEN SCREEN TIME AND ACTUAL BRAIN CHANGES”.1

The impactful point in this article was that they looked at brain structure via MRI and saw physical differences based on screen time. Here is a quick description of the project: “The ABCD study ( is the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. The ABCD Research Consortium consists of a Coordinating Center, a Data Informatics and Analysis Center, and 21 research sites across the country (see map), which will recruit approximately 10,000 children ages 9-10 and following them into early adulthood. Integrating structural and functional brain imaging with genetics, neuropsychological, behavioral, and other health assessments, the ABCD Study will increase our understanding of the many factors that can enhance or disrupt a young person’s life trajectory. “

I tend to be a fan of leveraging tech for productivity and enjoyment. When we had old devices, I have used Apple mobile products for the last decade, they ended up being set up for the kids to use. The thought being, the more they get comfortable with technology, the better they are able to interact with it later in life. While I still believe that to be true, this article has reinforced some of the limitations we have put in place.

The brain changes found

From the article2:

“The study just released included only the first cohort of 4,500 kids and it gives data based on questionnaires and MRIs of their brains at one moment in time. Researchers found that kids who spent more than 7 hours a day on screens, on average, had a thinner outer layer of their cerebral cortex than kids who spent less time on screens. The cerebral cortex is the area that houses “executive functioning” —ie, higher order thinking, such as data consolidation, problem-solving and planning. It also helps us regulate our responses to emotions that come from deeper areas of the brain. “

“ABCD researchers found that this thinning in the cortex was correlated with lower “crystalized” intelligence. Crystalized refers to the knowledge that youth glean from simply living life, such as vocabulary (as opposed to “fluid” intelligence which is not as much about “what is known” as opposed to “how something is known”)”

Cerebral Cortex

The study cites this area of the brain as the impact point. Here I will add a few notes I have saved from other readings to expand the context of cerebral cortex function.

  • Other studies have shown that gray matter density, too, is reduced in the cerebral cortex of cocaine addicts—that is, they have smaller or fewer nerve cells than is normal. 3
  • The default mode network, or DMN, was not known to brain science until 2001. That was when Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at Washington University, described it in a landmark paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS. The network forms a critical and centrally located hub of brain activity that links parts of the cerebral cortex to deeper (and older) structures involved in memory and emotion.4 This is is the area of the brain that is impacted by meditation and psychedelics. Here are my notes from that fascinating read.
  • Diagnosis of CIRS (chronic inflammatory response syndrome) with cognitive decline. Cognitive decline is common with CIRS. Imaging suggests brain changes not seen in most cases of Alzheimer’s. FDG-PET may show frontal as well as temporoparietal reductions in glucose utilization, even early in the course of the illness; MRI may show generalized shrinkage in the cerebral cortex and cerebellum, especially with mild FLAIR (fluid-attenuated inversion recovery) hyperintensity.5
  • Most pertinent to anyone looking to enhance their aptitude for learning, nitric-oxide-induced blood flow also makes forming new memories physically possible as it plays a key role in what neurologists call long-term potentiation, a process required for assembling and reinforcing new synaptic connections throughout the entire cerebral cortex, striatum, and hippocampus.6
  • The heart’s intrinsic nervous system is vital for the maintenance of cardiovascular stability and efficiency and without it, the heart cannot function properly. The neural output, or messages from the intrinsic cardiac nervous system travels to the brain via ascending pathways in the both the spinal column and vagus nerves, where it travels to the medulla, hy- pothalamus, thalamus and amygdala and then to the cerebral cortex7

The cerebral cortex is involved in drug abuse, cognitive decline/Alzheimer’s, mental health, executive function, and cardiac nervous system communication. With this background, it appears to me any cerebral cortex declines could have pronounced impact. Something to avoid for sure.

Distracted Minds

The brain changes are scary enough, but adding in how the brain operates when influenced by distracting screens escalates the matter quickly. I shared my notes on this fascinating book earlier, “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World“. Reading thru the excerpts in that link is eye-opening. Right after completing it, I implemented changes personally and in my workplace as well. Quite simply, these screens and devices can overpower our brain’s capacity in ways we don’t grasp in real time. These two quotes are probably the most impactful if you don’t have time to look thru the rest:

  •  Strikingly, as the authors concluded, “the mere presence of mobile phones inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust, and reduced the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”8
  • Yet another similar study by researchers at the University of Southern Maine found that “simply the presence of a cell phone and what it might represent (i.e., social connections, broader social network, etc.) can be similarly distracting and have negative consequences in a social interaction.”9


As mentioned earlier, I still believe kids should have access to tech. What has changed for me the most since the Distracted Mind book, and now being reinforced by this structural changes article, in addition to experience in how my kids behave (and watching their friends too), limits and guidelines are critical.

Software based Screen Time Limits

Device makers have made managing exposure an easier endeavor.


I have had many experiences with Apple devices, and have found their family accounts and settings very useful. Setting kids up an iCloud Family account under the parents have been available for a while. App install approvals have been standard, you get an alert as a parent when the child wants to install something, and you have to affirm before the install will proceed.

With iOS 12 in September of 2018, the options were upgraded. Parents can now control app and Screen Time for their kid’s device from their own phone. Setting bedtimes and App time limits have been amazingly handy (at least from my side – some disagreement from the offspring). You can dial the limits up or down on demand, such as when you discover there was a homework assignment missed (bye bye Snapchat for a while!). You can see stats such as daily or weekly screen time, as well as number of pickups (watch this stat on them and you – fascinating) and notifications in those times as well. These features have been a game changer; click here for a link to get started.


I don’t have any experience with Android devices, but there appear to be some similar features, according to this article.

Adult Tactics

Adults can benefit from some device relief as well – I definitely enjoy fewer notifications. One of Tim Ferriss’ most clicked articles in 2018 was How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You by Tony Stubblebine (@tonystubblebine). It is a good place to start.

Interestingly, in the Human Potential Coach Training I recently completed, the topic of focused work came up often in our practice sessions. We learned and implemented in many situations, various strategies to help bring back focus control to the client. Please reach out if interested!

Kids + Devices = Opportunities + Challenges

Where I am on this currently is that our kids can benefit from the structured use of the tech that will be an expanded part of their lives going forward. But, it must be managed. Structural brain changes are intimidating for sure, adding in the social and performance implications, this is a monstrous topic. How do you manage your children’s devices?

  3. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Mate Md and Peter A. Levine Loc 2678
  4. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan Loc 4221
  5. The End of Alzheimer’s: The First Program to Prevent and Reverse Cognitive Decline by Dale Bredesen Loc 1513
  6. Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food by Catherine Shanahan M.D. Loc 3842
  7. SCIENCE OF THE HEART Exploring the Role of the Heart in Human Performance Volume 2 Rollin McCraty, Ph.D
  8. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press)
  9. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press)

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