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Study: Brains of kids who use digital devices over 7 hours a day look different. And it may not be good.


And kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests

Image source: "60 Minutes" video screenshot

Scientists undertaking a $300 million study funded by the National Institute of Health said brain scans of 9- and 10-year-olds who use digital devices such as smartphones, tablets, and video games over seven hours daily show a premature thinning of the cerebral cortex, "60 Minutes" reported Sunday.

NIH study director Gaya Dowling told the program that in regard to the thinning of the cerebral cortex — the brain's outermost layer which processes data from the five senses — "what we would expect to see later is happening a little bit earlier."

The red color represents cerebral cortex thinning. (Image source: "60 Minutes" video screenshot)

Is it a bad thing?

Dowling acknowledged to "60 Minutes" that "we don't know if [cerebral cortex thinning is] being caused by the screen time. We don't know yet if it's a bad thing. It won't be until we follow them over time that we will see if there are outcomes that are associated with the differences that we're seeing in this single snapshot."

The study is following over 11,000 nine- to 10-year-olds for a decade to examine screen time affects the brain's physical structure — as well as the mental and emotional development of study participants, the program said.

The cerebral cortex data was gleaned from brain scans of 4,500 children, 60 Minutes said.

Image source: "60 Minutes" video screenshot

What else?

The study also showed that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests, the program added.

Will the study be able to determine if screen time is addictive?

Dowling — asked if the completed study will conclude if screen time is "actually addictive" — replied that she and her team "hope so. We'll be able to see not only how much time are they spending, how they perceive it impacting them, but also what are some of the outcomes. And that will get at the question of whether there's addiction or not."

The "60 Minutes" report noted the program's previous interview with former Google manager Tristan Harris who said that phones and apps are designed to capture and hold kids' attention: "There's a whole playbook of techniques that ... get you using the product for as long as possible." He added, "This is about the war for attention and where that's taking society and where that's taking technology."

Image source: "60 Minutes" video screenshot

"60 Minutes" also spoke to NIH study investigator Kara Bagot who believes, like many scientists, that screen time stimulates the brain's release of dopamine, a chemical that plays a big part in cravings and desire: "So you're more likely to act impulsively and use social media compulsively instead of, like, checking yourself," Bagot told the program, adding that users often want to keep the social media "good feelings" going.

You can read the full "60 Minutes" report here.

The following is the "60 Minutes" episode on the subject:

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