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Biggest study ever of teen brains to reveal how screen time affects kids

The findings will change the way kids are educated and parented, and the way society looks at teens, experts say.
by Robert Powell and A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

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What helps and hurts the teenage brain? A revolutionary new study hopes to find out how kids’ minds are shaped during this crucial and turbulent stage of life.

Researchers are following more than 11,000 children for the next decade, studying how dozens of factors — including drugs and alcohol, diet and exercise, screen time, academic and social stress, sleep patterns, sibling and parent relationships — impact their brains.

As part of TODAY's "Brain Power" series, NBC special anchor Maria Shriver talked with 9-year-old Nick and 10-year-old Gemma, who are both taking part in the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study, or “ABCD,” launched by the National Institutes of Health.

Nick thinks his brain is “a very big one,” while Gemma calls hers “really cool” and the most important part of her body. Experts say they and the other young participants will provide important clues to how modern childhood impacts teens.

“It's a little frightening that we have all these children today who are spending 10 hours a day in front of a screen for their socialization, and we don't know what's going to happen to their brains or how that's going to affect their relationships when they get older,” said Susan Bookheimer, one of the study's lead investigators and a professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCLA.

In an online TODAY poll, we asked you to tell us what influences you're most worried about when it comes to your child's brain, and most of you said "too much screen time."

In the 10-year study, the biggest ever of teenage brains, kids get regular physical exams, cognitive tests and MRI scans at medical centers across the country. They and their parents also fill out detailed, confidential questionnaires about their habits and lifestyles.

“When we see brain changes, we need to know, what is the cause of them? When did they start?” Bookheimer said. “We can look at boys versus girls. We can look at different socioeconomic status, we can look at different exposures. We can look at kids who are in high-stress schools versus low-stress schools.”

Magnolia Dea, Nick's mom, worries about how stress at school is affecting his brain.

“Outside home, there's a lot of things that could influence them and their brain and how they're thinking. It could be their teachers, it could be their friends, it could be anybody,” Dea said.

Meanwhile, Gemma is already aware of her brain responding when she’s spending time with friends, watching a movie or listening to music.

“When I'm on my tablet, if I'm on it too long, I'm like, ‘Is this going to do something to my brain? Is this bad for it?’” she said.

The study also looks at the effects of extracurricular activities. Gemma's dad has been encouraging her to take up singing and dancing, but he’d like to see scientific data on whether such activities really do contribute to good brain development.

The kids and parents are both paid per visit for participating in the study. The first results are due out next year.

Bookheimer thinks the research will change the way kids are educated and parented, and the way society looks at teens.

“We hope that at the end we'll be able to say, ‘Children who do these kinds of activities actually end up doing a lot better than children who don't,’” she said.

The ABCD study is still looking to recruit kids, so if you and your preteen are interested, go to abcdstudy.org for more information on how to sign up.

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