Groundbreaking Study Examines Effects of Screen Time on Kids

60 Minutes goes inside a landmark government study of young minds to see if phones, tablets and other screens are impacting adolescent brain development.

The War for Attention

If you have kids and wonder if all that time they spend on their smartphones endlessly scrolling, snapping and texting is affecting their brains, you might want to put down your own phone and pay attention. The federal government, through the National Institutes of Health, has launched the most ambitious study of adolescent brain development ever attempted. In part, scientists are trying to understand what no one currently does: how all that screen time impacts the physical structure of your kids' brains, as well as their emotional development and mental health.

At 21 sites across the country scientists have begun interviewing nine and ten-year-olds and scanning their brains. They'll follow more than 11,000 kids for a decade, and spend $300 million doing it. Dr. Gaya Dowling of the National Institutes of Health gave us a glimpse of what they've learned so far.

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Dr. Gaya Dowling — the interviews and data from the NIH study have already revealed that kids who spend more than two hours a day on screens got lower scores on thinking and language tests.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis at Seattle Children's Hospital was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics' most recent guidelines for screen time. They now recommend parents, avoid digital media use, except video chatting, in children younger than 18 to 24 months.

  • Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH
  • Professor of Pediatrics
  • 4800 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105
  • 206) 987-2000

Dr. Kara Bagot is an investigator on that $300 million NIH study. Her team is scanning teenager's brains as they follow Instagram, the most popular social media app. When we met 18-year-old Roxy Shimp, she was about to participate in Dr. Bagot's study. The MRI’s found significant differences in the brains of some kids who use smartphones, tablets, and video games more than seven hours a day.
Title Assistant Professor In Residence
Institution University of California San Diego
Department Psychiatry
Address 9500 Gilman Drive #0405
La Jolla CA 92093

Jean Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State University. She spent five years combing through four large, national surveys of 11 million young people since the 1960's. She discovered sudden changes in the behavior and mental health of teens born in 1995 and later, a generation that she calls I-gen.

Tristan Harris

There's a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible. Harris is a former Google manager who was one of the first Silicon Valley insiders to publicly acknowledge that phones and apps are being designed to capture and keep kids' attention.

Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute