Big news has hit us this week about brain morphology and screen time, and I want to weigh in as we all try to make sense of the findings. Here is the gist of what headlines are saying:

Researchers studied 4,500 9-and 10-year olds and found that many of those who spend more than 7 hours a day on screens —such as smartphones, tablets, and video games—showed premature thinning of the cortex which is the outermost layer of the brain.

This new data comes from the ABCD study funded by The National Institutes of Medicine (NIH). I just got off the phone with neuroscientist Elizabeth Sowell PhD who leads a ABCD study site at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. I have some important information to share.

I met Elizabeth when The Los Angeles Unified School District asked me to speak at a Screenagers’ event in 2016. Elizabeth and her team had a booth outside the screening where they were trying to recruit youth to be in the ABCD study —there are 21 sites around the country. Not many people were coming up to the booth.

Having spent two years working at NIH as a researcher, I understood how hard it is to find people to participate in studies, and I knew this study was a game changer, so I was eager to help. During my Screenagers presentation, I told the audience all about the landmark study and the learning opportunities that their children could glean from participating in a major research study. I was so pleased that many of the audience went straight to the booth after the talk to sign up.

For this study, 9-and-10-year-olds were recruited between 2016 to 2018. Kids will be followed for a total of ten years. At their yearly visits, the children and their parents will complete questionnaires, and some years MRI scans will be done on the kids. A total of 11,000 youth have been enrolled, and scientists will be gathering important data about brain development in response to things like marijuana, alcohol, and... screen time.


The study just released included only the first cohort of 4,500 kids and it gives data based on questionnaires and MRIs of their brains at one moment in time. Researchers found that kids who spent more than 7 hours a day on screens, on average, had a thinner outer layer of their cerebral cortex than kids who spent less time on screens. The cerebral cortex is the area that houses “executive functioning” —ie, higher order thinking, such as data consolidation, problem-solving and planning. It also helps us regulate our responses to emotions that come from deeper areas of the brain.


Babies are born with many more brain cells than they will end up with as adults. Why so many cells at birth? The hypothesis is that this abundance of cells gives humans incredible adaptability to whatever environments they find themselves. As babies grow older and have experiences, these experiences dictate how neurons begin to lay down patterns. Neuronal connections that are not used, start to be pruned away. Evolutionarily, it is important that the brain loses some of what it does not use because running a brain takes a lot of energy—in fact 20% of the food we eat goes just to support the brain. Pruning promotes efficiency.  


The researchers revealed thinner cortexes of these 9 and 10-year-olds. The level of thinning found is what one finds on MRIs for older children. This is why this is being called premature thinning. One could see this as a bad thing, that the brain is consolidating neurons earlier than it normally would.  On the flip side, one could say that the brain appears to be maturing faster, so isn’t that a good thing?

Early maturation can sound good but the ABCD researchers found that this thinning in the cortex was correlated with lower “crystalized” intelligence. Crystalized refers to the knowledge that youth glean from simply living life, such as vocabulary (as opposed to “fluid” intelligence which is not as much about “what is known” as opposed to “how something is known”). I do not know which crystalized intelligence they measured because it is not in the science report.


Does all this have me concerned? Yes...but at this point, we have no idea if the screen time caused this thinning, or if the kids who were inclined to spend more than 7 hours on screens were more likely to have a thinner cortex to begin with. The real power of this study will come with follow-up data collection and MRI scans. The changes that will be revealed over time will help sort out cause and effect relationships.

But don’t get me wrong, this is really important information, and we need to talk with our students in schools and universities, students in afterschool programs, Boy and Girl Scouts, team sports, along with children and teens in our homes. This is the type of science that can engage young people. It is about their brains, and they do care about their brains!

In fact, last month I was in France filming their new national law to limit screen time by prohibiting cell phones in classrooms for students 15 and younger. When discussions turned to screen time at home, many tweens and teens told me how they were comfortable keeping their phones out of their bedrooms at night because they had learned that there might be problems from too much radiation exposure. Science is still looking into this, but what is telling is that that the students were concerned enough by this research to change their habits.

Today let’s use this new scientific study from ABCD to engage our youth in this important topic of screen time effects on kids’ brain development. As we sit in the middle of this tech revolution, let’s help the next generation be data-driven and scientifically minded —their input is key to creating a society committed to preventing unthwarted outcomes of excessive screen time.  

Here are questions to ask your kids about the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study.

  1. Given that 9 and 10-year-olds who were on screens over 7 hours a day were found to have thinner cerebral cortexes of the brain—where higher order thinking occurs, such as problem-solving and planning—what do you make of this?

  2. Could it be that kids who have thinner cerebral cortexes are inclined to look at screens more?

  3. Once we have follow up data in about a year, how will that give us a lot more information about cause and effect?

  4. Why might it be that researches found that kids who looked at screens over 7 hours a day scored lower on knowledge tests (also called crystalized learning)?

The Writing's on the Screen

WE READ more than ever -- three times as much as we did in 1980, according to one study. But we're reading differently. Take a look around a train carriage full of commuters nowadays and you'll probably see more people perusing text on phones and tablets than in newspapers and books. We're writing differently, too. Not so long ago people at meetings and lectures scribbled away furiously with their pens as they took notes. Today, talks and presentations are accompanied by the manic click-clack of laptop keyboards. Hurrah, some say. Our smartphones and tablets are expanding our worlds. We now have access to vast libraries literally at our fingertips. Good riddance to shoulder-wrenching textbooks, teetering towers of dusty papers, leaky pens and cramped hands. Others, though, worry that the benefits of digital technology come at a cost. Is all that skimming, scrolling and flicking around electronic screens dulling our capacity for sustained attention and deeper reading? Is there something special about pen-on-paper that typing fails to reproduce?

There is no going back, of course. Digital screens are here to be superseded. But if they do affect the way we read and write, we need to know so we can maximise the benefits and minimise any downsides.

And we need to know sooner rather than later.

The Importance of Resilience for Kids With Learning and Attention Issues

By Donna Volpitta

At a Glance

  • Resilience is an important life skill for children with learning and attention issues.
  • Being resilient can help kids learn coping skills and find solutions to problems.
  • There are many ways you can help your child develop resilience.

It’s not easy to see your child have a setback, especially after she’s worked really hard. But it can be hard to avoid. Kids with learning and attention issues face challenges other kids don’t. They struggle in school. And they may have trouble with everyday skills like self-control, following directions or picking up on social cues.

But facing challenges and learning from them can have an upside. It can help your child build resilience. This vital life skill is what allows kids to tackle their challenges despite having setbacks. Learn more about what resilience means and how to help your child develop it.

Why Young Kids Learn Through Movement

Children acquire knowledge by acting and then reflecting on their experiences, but such opportunities are increasingly rare in school.

by Lara N. Dotson-Renta


One of my children is spinning in a circle, creating a narrative about a princess as she twirls. The other is building a rocket ship out of a discarded box, attaching propellers made of cardboard and jumping in and out of her makeshift launcher. It is a snow day, and I’ve decided to let them design their own activities as I clean up and prepare a meal. My toddler becomes the spinning princess, imagining her character’s feelings and reactions. What seems like a simple story involves sequencing, character development, and empathy for the brave princess stuck in her tower. The rocket ship my first grader is working on needs a pilot and someone to devise the dimensions and scale of its frame; it also needs a story to go with it. She switches between roles and perspectives, between modes of thinking and tinkering.

This kind of experiential learning, in which children acquire knowledge by doing and via reflection on their experiences, is full of movement, imagination, and self-directed play. Yet such learning is increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms in the U.S, where many young children spend their days sitting at tables and completing worksheets. Kindergarten and preschool in the U.S. have become more and more academic, rigorously structuring kids’ time, emphasizing assessment, drawing a firm line between “work” and “play”—and restricting kids’ physical movement. A study from the University of Virginia released earlier this year found that, compared to 1998, children today are spending far less time on self-directed learning—moving freely and doing activities that they themselves chose—and measurably more time in a passive learning environment.  5/19/16

Let The Children Play

by David Kohn


TWENTY years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades. In many schools, formal education now starts at age 4 or 5. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and math, and may never catch up.

The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more; the early bird catches the worm.

But a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even souring kids’ desire to learn.     5/16/15

The 4Ss of Note-Taking with Technology  

Beth Holland, Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Student & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Recently, a number of articles have surfaced reporting the ineffectiveness of note taking with laptops, in keeping with the findings of Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer detailed in The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard. These authors assert that when students used laptops in lecture courses, they transcribed notes rather than synthesized information. As a result, those students then performed poorly on cognitively demanding tasks.

However, before making a blanket statement that one device may be better than another (e.g. pen vs. laptop) or calling into question what may be the best note-taking system, what if we approach the concept by identifying what is best for individual students? In other words, does the system . . .

  • Adequately support the students' learning needs?
  • Allow students to save their notes to multiple locations?
  • Let students search for salient points?
  • Permit students to share with peers and teachers?

What is Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) anyway?

The transdisciplinary field of Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) developed over the past twenty years out of overlap in the established fields of cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology, In recent years, pedagogy -- the method and practice of teaching -- became the third component in answer to a "so what" response to research about learning and learners. The challenge became communication between research and researchers with education and educators. For years, neuromyths such as right-brain/left-brain or water as a way to hydrate the brain, entered into the classroom without standing and without effect. This led to frustration among educators who believed they were being provided applicable information from current research. Without the time, access to resources, and training, educators were unable to validly connect with the research in an iterative manner to address real issues with learning and learners. Research suffered because it remained removed from the expertise of teachers and, even in cases of lab-schools, remained removed from the guidance teachers could provide. The new science of teaching and learning, seen in MBE, elevates the professional practice of teaching, validates research on pedagogy, and improves the experience of learning.

Who Are MBE Scientists?

In some instances this label will mean teachers who are integrating cognitive neuroscience and psychological foundations into their practice. In other cases it will mean psychologists who seek to bridge the hard and soft sciences. In yet others it will mean neuroscientists who dare to bring laboratory findings into the classroom. While many educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists remain pure practitioners within their single discipline, a growing number of others straddle the three academic fields of education, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience that wear the new MBE hat.   (Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2011)

Sheryl Sandberg: How to Build Resilient Kids, Even After a Loss

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

After my husband’s death, I set out to learn everything
I could about how kids persevere through adversity.


Two years ago, in an instant, everything changed for my family and me. While my husband, Dave, and I were on vacation, he died suddenly from a cardiac arrhythmia.

Flying home to tell my 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son that their father had died was the worst experience of my life. During that unimaginable trip, I turned for advice to a friend who counsels grieving children. She said that the most important thing was to tell my kids over and over how much I loved them and that they were not alone.

In the fog of those early and brutal weeks and months, I tried to use the guidance she had given me. My biggest fear was that my children’s happiness would be destroyed by our devastating loss. I needed to know what, if anything, I could do to get them through this.

I also started talking with my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor who studies how people find motivation and meaning. Together, we set out to learn everything we could about how kids persevere through adversity.

As parents, teachers and caregivers, we all want to raise resilient kids — to develop their strength so they can overcome obstacles big and small. Resilience leads to better health, greater happiness and more success. The good news is that resilience isn’t a fixed personality trait; we’re not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build.

A Learning Secret: Don't Take Notes with a Laptop

Students who used longhand remembered more and had a deeper understanding of the material

“More is better.”  From the number of gigs in a cellular data plan to the horsepower in a pickup truck, this mantra is ubiquitous in American culture.  When it comes to college students, the belief that more is better may underlie their widely-held view that laptops in the classroom enhance their academic performance.  Laptops do in fact allow students to do more, like engage in online activities and demonstrations, collaborate more easily on papers and projects, access information from the internet, and take more notes.  Indeed, because students can type significantly faster than they can write, those who use laptops in the classroom tend to take more notes than those who write out their notes by hand.  Moreover, when students take notes using laptops they tend to take notes verbatim, writing down every last word uttered by their professor.

Obviously it is advantageous to draft more complete notes that precisely capture the course content and allow for a verbatim review of the material at a later date.  Only it isn’t.  New research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer demonstrates that students who write out their notes on paper actually learn more*.  Across three experiments, Mueller and Oppenheimer had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information.  Half of the students were instructed to take notes with a laptop, and the other half were instructed to write the notes out by hand.  As in other studies, students who used laptops took more notes.  In each study, however, those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.   

*Note: Interesting study but be cautious when interpreting this as causal!!


The 'Math Brain' mindset creates gender gap in sciences and hurts learners

Article fro Kelly Wallace @ CNN


  • The myth that you are either good at math or you aren't discourages girls, says a Stanford professor
  • The "dry, procedural way" math is taught also turns off girls
  • Our own upbringing shapes the way we talk to our kids about math in ways that do not occur in other subjects (there is no "history brain" myth, for example)
  • Growth Mindset supports structural and functional changes in the brain which changes thoughts, emotions, and behavior

How to talk with you child to promote a Growth Mindset.

FIXED MINDSET: "You read that sentence in the book — good job!"

GROWTH MINDSET: "You read that sentence in the book — Do you remember when you were working on reading each word and now, you are reading the whole sentence--you worked hard to learn how to do that and now you can! You should be proud of yourself!!"  (focus on growth, progress, challenge leading to progress, their pride--not yours--about their work)

FIXED MINDSET: "You finished that puzzle so quickly — what a smart kid!"

GROWTH MINDSET: "From how quickly you finished that puzzle, I can see it was easy for you — let's find another one that will give us a bigger challenge and we can work on it together if you want." (observation of level of challenge, encouragement to push the challenge level up, availability to support if wanted) 

FIXED MINDSET: "You got an 80% on your test." 

GROWTH MINDSET: "You got an 80% on your test; that means you are well on your way to knowing this stuff! What do you think worked for you in the way you studied? Do you see any pattern in the questions you missed that can give you clues as to how to study differently for the next test? (recognizing what went well, reflecting on strategies, addressing failure/mistakes as part of the process without shame or soft-pedaling, planning for future challenge)

It's a subtle shift in messaging, but the difference it makes can be huge.