Rethinking Screen Time: Investigating Impacts on Adolescent Mental Health and Brain Development

February 13, 2024 by Angela Ferrante

Rethinking Screen Time

NIH Grant to UVM Investigates Impacts of screen time on Adolescent Mental Health and Brain Development

A $2M National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant is poised to drive groundbreaking research led by Bader Chaarani, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. The study aims to delve into the effects of screen time on adolescents' brain development and mental health, utilizing data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD).

The ABCD Study, initiated in 2016, spans a 10-year duration and involves nearly 12,000 youth aged 9 to 10 across 21 research sites nationwide. It stands as the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. Chaarani's grant zeroes in on five-year data related to screen time, focusing on subjects aged 9-15 enrolled in the study. Given the relatively recent prevalence of screen time, little research has explored its long-term impacts on children and teens.

This comprehensive grant will help Chaarani’s team examine screen time while controlling for other important factors such as age differences, subtypes of screen time, gender disparities, puberty, sleep disorders, and substance use disorders.

Chaarani's prior research on impulse control and working memory in gamers laid the foundation for securing funding for this project. Published in October 2022 in JAMA Network Open, his study, encompassing nearly 2,000 children from the ABCD cohort, revealed that those playing video games for three hours or more per day performed better on cognitive skills tests involving impulse control and working memory compared to non-gaming peers. Now, Chaarani and his team of Larner researchers—Chair of Psychiatry Robert Althoff, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry Hugh Garavan, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Matthew Albaugh, and Associate Professor of Pediatrics Leigh-Anne Cioffredi, M.D.—aim to delve deeper into the specific impact of each screen time category (active, passive (TV watching), mixed (texting, social media, browsing), potential causal relationships, and more, leveraging state-of-the-art techniques and the knowledge gained from several sets of twins in the ABCD cohort, many of whom are identical.

The research into video games spurred Chaarani to develop an intriguing hypothesis, to be addressed by the findings from this grant. The team postulates that, contrary to popular belief, limited screen time—especially active screen time like video gaming—might enhance children's cognition while not negatively affecting mental health.

Chaarani acknowledges some limitations of the study, such as the inability to further break down screen time categories. However, he envisions that the outcomes from this project will pave the way for a more nuanced understanding, allowing his team to analyze the diverse forms of screen time and their impact on developing minds. The study not only promises to contribute significantly to our understanding of screen time effects but also holds the potential to reshape perspectives on the role of technology in adolescent well-being.

“As a video game enthusiast, I am thrilled to be leading this project that will analyze one of the largest and most comprehensive longitudinal datasets to uncover both the beneficial and detrimental impacts of screen time categories,” stated Chaarani. “Our goal is to provide valuable insights that can reshape best practices surrounding digital media use in children and adolescents.”

If you are a post-doctorate, a graduate student or a research assistant interested in working on this project, please reach out to Dr. Chaarani at bader.chaarani@uvm.edu to learn more.


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