Young children spend a lot of time playing smartphones, typing tablets and looking at TV screens.
Could this time be distancing itself from its initial physical and mental development?
A new study argues that this is precisely the case – screen time can affect children's performance in developmental tests.
Going beyond the recommended guidelines
"Children who are being placed in front of the screens are showing a developmental delay," said researcher Sheri Madigan. She is chair of research on child development in the department of psychology at the University of Calgary in Canada.
For the study, Madigan and her colleagues tracked the progress of more than 2,400 children in Calgary by asking mothers to complete questionnaires assessing screen time and child development at two, three and five years of age.
Watching TV, using a computer, playing video games and playing with tablets or smartphones were among the types of screen times reported.
"We found that, on average, children are seeing screens between two and three hours a day," said Madigan. "This exceeds the recommended guidelines of no more than one hour of high-quality programming for children between two and five years," as defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Higher levels of screen time at two and three years of age were significantly associated with poorer performance in three- and five-year developmental screening tests, the researchers report.
These screening tools tested children in relation to communication, problem solving, social and motor skills, Madigan said.
Lost learning opportunities
By observing the use and progress of the children's screen over time, the researchers discarded the possibility that the association might work differently – children with existing developmental problems being placed on screen more often as a way of controlling their behavior , noted Madigan.
"In fact, we do not see the inverse association," Madigan said.
Too much screen time can affect children's development in two possible ways, although a cause-and-effect link has not been proven, she said.
Spending time on a screen can cause children to lose learning opportunities. "When children are in front of the screens, they are missing out on opportunities to practice their thick motor skills, such as riding a bike or running around," Madigan explained.
The screens themselves and the apps and games they offer can also have a direct impact on how a child's brain develops, she suggested.
"The digital interface has bright lights, it's really reinforcing, it's repetitive. A lot of it can jeopardize development when kids' brains are developing fast," Madigan said.
Dr. Anne Glowinski is an associate director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine in St. Louis. She said that, from her point of view, the new findings "really support AAP's recommendations for screen time."
A media diet for young brains
However, she added that parents should not panic, since the field of research on screen time and its effects on development is in its infancy. Scientists are still working to find more refined ways to track the use of the screen and link it to changes in development.
Glowinski compared the field to earlier research aimed at creating healthier meals for children.
"We're talking about dietary recommendations that need to be created, a media diet for young brains, and science right now has no evidence to make those recommendations," Glowinski said.
Meanwhile, Madigan said worried parents should:
- Limit children's screen time following AAP recommendations.
- Develop a family media plan. "You decide how the devices will be used, where they will be used, how often they will be used. You really want to cultivate healthy habits around the use of devices," she said.
- Serve as media mentors by monitoring your own screen usage and modeling good behavior.
- Sit down with the kids and take part in your screen time instead of using it as a babysitter.
The new study was published online in JAMA Pediatrics.
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