Screen Time and Your Child’s Brain

The medical community has known for the past 30 years that spending large amounts of time in front of a TV or computer screen had a negative effect on a child’s developing brain – but specifically what parts of brain development were affected and for how long, have not been well researched or understood.

Thanks to new longer-term research studies, we now have more comprehensive, useable data. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported in JAMA Pediatrics that an increase in screen viewing time is linked to poorer progress on key young childhood developmental measures over time, including communication and language skills, memory, attention span, problem solving, and social skills.

This pronouncement is the result of a far-reaching psychological study from the University of Calgary in Canada, where 2,441 mothers and children aged two to five were studied over the course of three years. Initial baseline data were collected at the start of the study, when the children were two years old, then again when they were three and five.

By following the children over many years, the University of Calgary study learned more about how screen time and early child brain development intersect. Mothers reported on how much time their children spent in front of a television or computer screen on a typical day. They also reported on their child’s developmental measures by answering questions about their child’s behavior, communication skills, and social interactions. The study found that on average, the young children in the study were spending about 2-3 hours per day in front of a screen. (It’s worth noting that The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young children spend no more than one hour a day watching quality educational programming.)

Children who spent more time using TV or computers did indeed show poorer performance on developmental measures. (Interestingly, the study did not find evidence that the opposite was occurring. In other words, children with developmental issues were not more likely to spend time in front of a screen.)

These measurable links remained strong even after researchers accounted for other factors that can influence development, such as parents’ education, children’s physical activity levels, and whether parents read to their children regularly.

“The study results show that there is a lasting influence of screen time, especially when children are two to five years old, when their brains are undergoing a period of tremendous development,” according to the JAMA Pediatrics article.

“It also strongly supports expert guidelines that recommend limiting screen time for young children,” notes Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “When the brain is rapidly developing new connections, it learns from every kind of experience it receives. So when watching a screen, the child is missing out on the opportunity for interacting with others and the surrounding environment.”

It is important to note, however, that not all screen time is detrimental to brain development. Families can develop healthy media habits by watching with their children, pointing out and discussing interesting ideas to contribute to language, skills and learning, making the time beneficial.

The Fascinating Brain-Gut Connection

As you eat your dinner, some pretty fascinating things are going on in your body that go well beyond filling your stomach and keeping your body fueled.

  • As you swallow, multiple enzymes in your gastrointestinal tract release the nutrients from your food into your bloodstream and deliver them to the muscles and organs in your body to give them energy.
  • You are also feeding the billions of bacteria at home in your gut. In fact, there are at least two pounds of them.
  • Interestingly, you are also actively feeding your brain, which requires a lot of fuel – and prebiotics.

Really? Your brain and gut work together? “Absolutely,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “That’s because what you eat doesn’t just feed your active body, it also profoundly influences your mental as well as physical health. Even more interesting, what your body can’t digest may be the biggest boon to your physical and mental well-being.”

Here’s why:

  • Every person’s microbiome is distinct, influenced by age, genetics, diet, and sex.
  • There’s a sort of secondary market for the indigestibles in your colon. This is where an incredibly diverse family of permanently entrenched bacteria feed on the enzyme-resistant carbohydrates you eat.
  • Prebiotics, types of dietary fiber that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, influence the production of gut bug-derived metabolites like short-chain fatty acids, compounds that play a pivotal role in gut-brain communication.
  • Your colon actually ferments these in ways unique to your inner gut biome. The composition of this unique microbiome influences such functions such as memory, sleep, appetite, vulnerability to stress, anxiety, depression, and lots more.

“In other words,” says O’Neil, “your gut may have way more to do with your brain than you ever thought possible.”

Recent studies show that it is prebiotics that curb your brain’s response to stress, dampening secretion of the hormone cortisol. Prebiotics also step up to regulate the way your brain processes emotional information, helping to keep it from depression.

What prebiotics can you eat to help your brain-gut connection?

Nondigestible carbohydrates (fiber), prebiotics act as fertilizer for specific strains of healthy gut bacteria.

The best-researched prebiotics are complex carbohydrates called FOS (fructooligosaccharides), which are found in fruits and vegetables.

GOS (galactooligosaccharides) are another helpful prebiotic strain, found in legumes.

New research has also discovered that polyphenol antioxidants in green tea, red wine, blueberries, and cocoa boost populations of beneficial bacteria in your microbiome. No wonder you get an emotional release after eating chocolate and consuming a glass of red wine!

The first few months of life and adolescence seem to be particularly important times for regulation of gut-brain health. This is because the diversity of the microbiome during that period will have lasting effects on the adult body, helping set the body’s stress threshold for life during certain sensitive periods of development, when the brain is growing especially rapidly.

Overall, says Leanne O’Neil, prebiotics are dietary components that can promote gut and brain health with links to physical health and mental well-being at any age. So eat – knowledgeably!

Diet & Exercise Might Reverse Aging in the Brain

Everyone knows that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise are the keys to good health and staving off early signs of aging. But did you know that those same health benefits can keep your brain healthy and youthful as well?

Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have established that even among a group of people over 55 years who already showed signs of age-related thinking problems, exercising regularly while maintaining a healthy diet over six months improved their performance on cognitive tests.

The 160 people chosen for the study had cognitive skills similar to people in their 90’s, significantly older than they actually were. The volunteers were divided into four groups:

  • one group participated in an aerobic exercise program
  • another was assigned a low-sodium or Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet
  • a third was asked to exercise and change their diet at the same time, and
  • a fourth control group was provided educational sessions about how to improve their brain health.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the group that exercised and changed its diet at the same time showed the greatest improvements in cognitive tests after six months. The control group, however, showed a continued decline in their brain test scores, and there was no significant benefit from either exercise or change in diet alone.

We now have evidence that exercise and the diet together are better than dieting or exercise alone. The research also showed it is possible to improve senior neurocognitive function, and possibly even postpone development of dementia late in life.

“The bottom line is that it’s never too late to acquire brain and overall health benefits from exercise and better eating,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback.

“Researchers know that physical heart health, as well as how well blood circulates throughout the body and brain are tremendously important to retaining cognitive skills,” O’Neil continues. “That’s because our brains rely on oxygen–rich blood for fuel. In fact, our brains use more oxygen than any other organ in our bodies. Just another reason we incorporate the Heart Math program with all our clients.”

Marijuana and the Adolescent Brain

More and more states are legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational use. Researchers, doctors, educators, and parents are taking note and need to fully understand the health effects of cannabis use in minors.

You and your teen should consider these new research findings:

  • com and U.S. News and World Report released a 2018 survey that found 2.1 million middle and high school students have engaged in vaping marijuana.
  • Researchers in Europe found that marijuana can increase the amount of gray matter in a teenager’s brain, which affects adolescent development.
  • A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that after just one use of marijuana, the teenage brain can be altered.

We do know that marijuana can slow a person’s reaction time, make their heart race, and affect short-term memory. But what else might it do, especially to developing adolescent brains?

In one study, researchers scanned the brains of 46 14-year-olds from Ireland, England, France, and Germany. They found that those who used marijuana had higher brain volumes than those who didn’t. Specifically, brain volume referred to increased gray matter, a mass of cells that affect how humans mature over time.

Here’s why this matters. At age 14, the median age of the teens in the study, “Teens’ cortical regions go through a process of thinning or pruning,” says the lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry. However, when marijuana was introduced, the increased amount of gray matter “disrupted this pruning process” which, in turn, interrupted the normal maturation process. But how much, or to what end, we don’t yet fully understand.

In addition to changing the teenage brain, marijuana also has other effects on the human body:

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, is the main psychoactive component in marijuana. THC reacts with the body’s cannabinoid receptors resulting in slower reaction times to stimuli.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse has shown that marijuana can make a user’s heart rate temporarily jump. This feeling may last between 20 minutes and three hours and can cause a heart rate increase of up to 50 beats per minute. Since a usual resting heart rate is 60 bpm, this rate is nearly double the average.
  • Marijuana users may also experience issues with their short-term memory loss, since the THC affects how a brain processes information, according to a 2013 study.

Compounding all these verifiable health issues is what behavioral psychologists have long known about adolescent brains. That is, because the frontal cortex of their brains is still developing, adolescents are much more likely to engage in risky and experimental behavior. Additionally, vaping (rather than smoking) marijuana is seen as a cooler, more accepted way to get high. Plus, weed is now more readily accessible (often legal for those 21 years and older) across America and elsewhere.

Parents and their teens should take notice. Although we have research showing that marijuana affects the brain in some limited long- and short-term ways, we simply do not yet know what the long-term outlook is for teens who smoke or vape marijuana on an ongoing basis.