The research used data from the ten-year Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, which began in September 2016.
Walsh and his team looked at data - based on detailed questionnaires - for 4,520 children spread across 20 locations in the United States.
Those who met all three had the most "superior" global cognition, followed by those meeting the sleep and screen time recommendation and finally the screen time recommendation alone, according to the study. These suggest that children of this age should be spending no more than two hours per day on screens, they should be getting nine to 11 hours of sleep per night and they should be undertaking at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. "Evidence suggests that good sleep and physical activity are associated with improved academic performance, while physical activity is also linked to better reaction time, attention, memory, and inhibition".
"We know that the behaviors of physical activity, sleep and screen time can independently impact the cognitive health of a child".
They also tested the kids for six kinds of cognitive skills, adjusting the results for household income, puberty development and other factors that might affect performance. The relationship between recreational screen time and cognitive development has historically been less clear, and this type of research is in early stages, he said.
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"It is tempting to take solace in findings that cognitively challenging screen activities can benefit cognition", he adds, "but, if given a choice, most children already consistently and predictably choose more stimulating screen activities over less stimulating ones". Some 25% met two and just 5% met all three recommendations.
Surprisingly, meeting only the physical activity recommendation was not associated with higher scores on the cognitive tests.
"We need to be doing more to encourage behaviors that promote healthy activity throughout the whole day". "This study is showing that less than two hours of recreational screen time is beneficial for children". Research is ongoing, however, with particular focus into what exactly kids are watching with their screen time, be it for entertainment or educational purposes.
The strong link between brain function and time spent staring at a screen "potentially reflect the interruption of the stress recovery cycle needed for growth in children", as per Eduardo Esteban Bustamante, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences who did not take part in the study.
"Each minute spent on screens necessarily displaces a minute from sleep or cognitively challenging activities", writes Eduardo Esteban Bustamante, a behavioral scientist at the University of IL, in a commentary that accompanies the study."In the case of evening screen use, this displacement may also be compounded by impairment of sleep quality".