Study links excessive screen time to developmental delays in children

Posted February 01, 2019

Too much "screen time" may be affecting normal childhood development.

"What too much screen time leads to is a variety of missed opportunities for learning and development", she added.

"This is the first study to show that increased use of screen time in very young children can be associated with slower development".

Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Calgary in Canada, and her colleagues studied 2,441 mothers and children enrolled in the All Our Families study, which followed young children from ages two to five.

In the study, 2-year-olds spent about 17 hours a week in front of a screen.

The study reviewed the viewing habits of children between the ages of two and five over the period of five years. "This exceeds the recommended guidelines of no more than one hour of high-quality programming for kids between the ages of 2 and 5" set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

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Higher levels of screen time were linked with poorer developmental outcomes in children, a Canadian retrospective longitudinal study found.

At two years, three years, and five years, mothers were asked to record how much time their child spent using screens, including time in front of the TV, computer or other devices.

Researchers determined children who spent additional time watching television or tablets were more likely to struggle with communication and fine motor skills.

"When young children are observing screens, they may be missing important opportunities to practice and master interpersonal, motor, and communication skills", the authors wrote.

Kalady said parents often don't give themselves enough credit that they are able to teach their children better than a device can. Almost 2,500 Alberta families participated in the project and documented their children's screen time.

According to Kalady, the early years are critical for children to spend quality face-to-face time with parents and caregivers, as this time together enables children to learn how to interact both verbally and nonverbally.

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Because we only looked at total number of hours on screens, we don't know which apps, games or websites children are using.

Prof Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, said the study found less than 1% of children's variation in developmental scores was down to screen time.

Or were delayed children, who perhaps had more challenging behaviours, being plunked in front of screens more often to help them (and their parents) cope?

The plans, customised for each family's needs, would provide advice on setting and enforcing rules and imposing "screen-free zones" and "device curfews" in the home.

"In fact the data shows that the association with screen time is weaker than that between developmental outcomes and good sleep, reading to the child, and maternal positivity", he said.

Earlier this month, Britain's Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health released its guide on screen time for clinicians and parents, stating there is "essentially no evidence" to support the popular idea that screen time is directly "toxic" to one's health.

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Most important, just because an association between excessive screen time and poorer child development was found doesn't mean excessive screen time causes poorer development.