Project Details

Early Career

Status: Funded - Open

Neural effects of home reading environment, screen time, and video format in preschool children processing stories

John Hutton, MD, FAAP


BACKGROUND: Contrary to recommendations and despite association with language and behavioral problems, screen-based media use is increasing dramatically in young children, fueling controversy about how such media are processed during the span of maximal brain development from birth to age 5.

GAP: Our study will compare neural mechanisms supporting story processing delivered in traditional versus animated format in preschool children, particularly visual imagery, and explore the influence of screen-based media use on brain structure and connectivity.

HYPOTHESES: 1: Animated format will be associated with activation in primary visual brain areas, while traditional format will be associated with activation in visual association areas supporting internally-generated imagery. 2: More stimulating home reading environment will be positively correlated with structural and functional measures in language- and imagery supporting brain networks, and excessive screen time will be negatively correlated.

METHODS: Forty healthy children between 36 and 60 months old will be recruited from high volume primary care clinics based at an academic children’s medical center. Structural and functional MRI, cognitive-behavioral testing and parental surveys of home reading and screen time environment will be conducted during a single study visit. Our fMRI paradigm will involve the presentation of age-appropriate stories in 3 formats - audio, audio + pictures, and animation – to discern differences in neural processing. Testing and survey results will be applied as predictors of neural structure and function.

RESULTS: Preliminary results: Compared to rest, pure audio story listening is associated with increased functional connectivity between default mode and semantic language networks, possibly  reflecting internal mental simulation to enhance comprehension. The addition of illustration, as in traditional picture books, is associated with robust increases in connectivity within networks involved with imagery, episodic memory, and semantic processing, including a potential cerebellar “boost,” and is consistent with the appeal of illustrated format for preschool age. By contrast, with the exception of visual perception, animation seems to decrease or “short-circuit” engagement of functional networks supporting higher-order association and imagination, a potential mechanism for well-described developmental risks of excessive screen-based media use. Preliminary results for the ScreenQ measure suggest solid internal psychometric properties, and have guided measure refinement from 17 to 14 items, a feasible number for research and clinical application.

IMPACT: Our findings will expand a novel, eco-bio-developmental emergent literacy model to account for screen-based format and electronic media use, informing pediatric recommendations, early interventions and longitudinal study design. Most notably, we anticipate that our fMRI findings will provide the first evidence of potential mechanisms underlying risks involved with excessive screen-based media use, via underrecruitment of functional brain networks supporting imagery, language, and learning. We anticipate that the ScreenQ measure will provide a valuable, novel tool to assess screen-based media use in children for research and clinical use.

Supervising Institution:
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Scott Holland

Project Location:

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