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How does screen time affect kids’ brains? The first results of a landmark study are alarming.

The National Institutes of Health recently began a $300-million study to examine the effects of screen time on developing brains.

Pixabay
  • The study uses MRI scans to track the changes in the brains of children who use screens at varying amounts.
  • Early results revealed that kids who use screens for more than 7 hours per day show physical changes to the brain in the form of premature thinning of the cortex.
  • It will likely be decades before scientists truly understand how smartphones and other technologies affect the brain.

How does screen time affect the developing brains of young kids?

That's the big question behind a $300-million study conducted by the National Institutes of Health that's using MRI scans to examine changes in brain structure among children who use smartphones and other screen devices. The first batch of results from the study, which was highlighted by CBS's 60 Minutes on Sunday, shows that kids who spent more than two hours per day on screens scored lower on language and thinking tests.

Alarmingly, kids who spent more than seven hours per day on electronic devices showed premature thinning of the cortex, which Dr. Gaya Dowling of the National Institutes of Health described as a "maturational process" that typically happens later in development.

"We don't know if it's being caused by the screen time," said Dowling. "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."

It will take a few years to get answers to some of the questions raised by the study. However, the most interesting results will likely come decades from now, when researchers can see the long-term effects of technology use on the brain. Dr. Dimitri Christakis of Seattle Children's Hospital, the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' most recent guidelines for screen time, told CBS he's concerned about this uncertainty.

"In many ways, the concern that investigators like I have is that we're sort of in the midst of a natural kind of uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children," Christakis said.

Most kids say they spend too much time on smartphones

American teenagers now spend more than four and a half hours on their phones per day, and that's not even necessarily counting additional time spent playing video games, watching TV or using the computer. It's no surprise that a generation of kids who'd be hard pressed to remember a time without smartphones have made them a big part of daily life—the iPhone came out in 2007, after all, so kids born after 1995 entered adolescence with touchscreens in hand.

Many kids are themselves concerned. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of U.S. teens said they spend too much time on their phones, and 60 percent of them consider spending too much time online to be a "major problem." The data seem to back that up, with today's teenagers reporting lower levels of drinking, sex and drug use, yet higher levels of depression and loneliness.

This year, Facebook, Apple and Instagram began offering tools to help users monitor and reduce their screen time, including features that let users set time limits and see how their screen time is allocated across different apps. Some of these features are designed to help parents restrict their children's screen time.

Of course, the best solution might be to wait to give your kid a phone until it's necessary. The American Academy of Pediatrics' recommends for "children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting," and that parents "of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing."

​An unprecedented technology

Tristan Harris, a former Google manager who's spoken publicly on how Silicon Valley is intentionally making smart devices as addictive as possible, told 60 Minutes that some parents are under the false impression that smartphone use is analogous to chatting on the phone in past decades.

"... there's a narrative that, oh, I guess they're just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn't have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive."

Tristan Harris: Your brain is vulnerable to hacking

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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