No, research does not say that ‘iPads and smartphones may damage toddlers’ brains’

Some news outlets are claiming that scientists have discovered that touchscreen devices are bad for child development. What does the journal article actually say?
Baby girl plays with ipad. Photograph: JPagetRMphotos/Alamy

It’s been a bad week for neuroscience in the news. Last Wednesday, we were told that it’s neuroscientific fact – FACT - that watching a murder mystery is good for your brain. We weren’t treated to any evidence to back up this astounding claim, but don’t worry – the writer was a neuroscientist. “The research in my field affirms this”, we were assured. And then, on Sunday in the Guardian, we had this gem – “research says iPads and smartphones may damage toddlers’ brains”. Thankfully, it’s since been changed to “Tablets and smartphones may affect social and emotional development, scientists speculate”, but I’m going to have a rant anyway.
Right. So there are two initial problems with the original headline. The first is that the research doesn’t have anything to say about brain damage in children. The second is that it’s not research.
The journal paper in question is a three-page commentary from Paediatrics that provides a whistle-stop tour of some of the main areas of research concerning the potential positive or negative impact of interactive media use in young children. It’s not exactly a definitive guide – while it claims to review the relevant existing research literature, it only refers to seven studies, so there’s not much to go on here. Beyond that though, it’s a fairly balanced article – and nowhere does it say anything about touchscreen devices causing brain damage. Anywhere. The words ‘brain’ and ‘damage’ don’t appear once.
The main thrust of the commentary is that there’s a bit of research on children’s use of smartphones and tablets, but not much – and certainly not enough considering the takeup of such devices. The research that has been conducted has mixed results. In some cases, beneficial effects have been demonstrated, for example on improving early literacy skills, or improving academic engagement instudents with autism. In other studies, we see negative outcomes – for example, ebooks that tack on sound effects or games distract children from understanding the actual story they’re reading. So clearly, “more research is needed”. The worry though, is that there are relatively few paediatric guidelines concerning the use of these sorts of devices. So the commentary finishes with some preliminary guidance for parents that includes commonsense claims like “parents should be encouraged to try an app first”. Which is fine, if a little patronising. But still nothing about brain damage.
Where did all the nonsense about “brain damage” come from then?
Back in December, the BMJ published an article headed up by Head quarters’own Chris Chambers. The study looked at the association between exaggeration in health-related science news in the media, and the content of the associated academic press releases. Basically, they found that in a large number of cases where exaggeration was present in news stories, it was also present in the press releases. So it makes sense, in our “ipads cause brain damage” case here, to look at whether the source of this scaremongering comes from an overeager press officer.
Nope. While there’s a slightly more negative tone to the press release than the original paper, there’s nothing about brain damage in there. Which is made all the more bizarre, given the fact that our hyped-up article seems to be based almost exclusively on the contents of the press release itself, quotes and all. The original scaremongering, then, seems to have first appeared in the news article in question. I’ve not been able to get a response from the journalist in question, but in an exchange with an academic on twitter yesterday, she wrote “it [the commentary] voices concern and has tone of alarm, researchers clearly fear the risks, with use outpacing knowledge, etc, we amplify”.
I’m not going to get into the whole scientists-versus-science-journalists debate here; it’s tired and boring. Ed Yong has a good summary of it here. But suffice to say, the issue here is not one of amplification; it’s simply that the headline was wrong, devoid of evidence, and served to derail public understanding of a very controversial and heated area of debate.
What do we actually know about the effects of touchscreen technology on childhood development?
The story is complex - given that it’s such a new area of research, the findings are a healthy mix of positive and negative effects. I’ve written about this before in the context of screen time. For instance, a 2011 study suggested an association between poor physical health and the amount of time spent watching television. On the other hand, a 2010 systematic review showed that video game use promoted light physical activity in children. In terms of psychological and behavioural development, a 2013 study suggested that television use, but not video game use, was associated with increases in conduct problems between the ages of five and seven years. However, the effects were small, and related to watching 3+ hours of television a day at age five.
I spoke to Clare Smith, a PhD student at the University of Surrey investigating risk factors for early indicators of language delay. She has also previously bloggedabout similar claims that forward-facing buggies can damage childhood development. “First, there is no evidence of a detrimental effect on child development from using iPads. The articles that looked at the different learning effects gained from story based apps compared to books do not recommend that iPads are not used, but rather that parents are aware of the different presentations of the story and that they guide the reader accordingly. They are balanced and highlight the potential gains for literacy development to be made from using a range of media” she says. “Second, there is no evidence of use of iPads as a ‘shut up toy’, particularly in the under 3s”, she adds. “The observations I made during my research indicate, if anything, that for this age group the use of tablets and smartphones tends to be a collaborative activity with parents”.

Professor Essi Viding, Director of the Developmental Risk and Resilience Unit at UCL, adds “I do not think there is convincing evidence that iPad use would limit social or motor development for example. One might even argue that some aspects of iPad use can prepare for social and motor demands of the current world. What the current data do suggest is that having excessive screen time (excessive likely to vary from one individual to next), especially close to bed time, can disrupt sleep patterns because of the impact of the blue light from the screens on melatonin production and consequently cicardian rhythm. We have good longitudinal data from humans, as well as animal data, emphasising the importance of adequate sleep on learning and memory. However, I do not think we have anything resembling specific guidelines on this topic (though people can apply common sense) and this is not a problem that is specific to iPads.”
I think there are a number of takehome messages here. The first, obviously, is that more research is needed. It’s really tiresome to have to say that, and I feel really reluctant to write it. But it feels as if there are a huge number of potentially exciting avenues for research in this area that aren’t being adequately addressed at the moment. I know it’s a difficult task, but we desperately need to specifically look at the effects of the content of apps and games that children play, and how these interact with the effects of the social context in which they play them.
Second, scientists need to be careful when writing these sorts of opinion pieces – all too often they seem prone to over-exaggeration in the press, and I’m not convinced they really add all that much value to the research literature. “No doubt the authors of such commentaries are well meaning and many of the recommendations are no doubt very good” says Prof. Viding. She adds “No one would argue that it is a good idea to spend time with your children, doing something fun or educational without distractions. However, while that type of recommendation is benign, it is another matter entirely to demonise screen time without appropriate evidence base”.
Finally, and this is a personal plea more than anything – for the love of all that is sacred, can we please stop with the newspaper headlines (and articles) that are chock full of nonsense neuroscience. It doesn’t do anyone – reader or journalist – any favours. 
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