This article was originally published in The Conversation, an independent, non-profit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The disclosure information is available on the original website.
Authors: Dillon Thomas Browne, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo; Nicole Racine, postdoctoral researcher, University of Calgary, and Sheri Madigan, assistant professor of the Canadian Research Chair in Child Development, Owerko Center at the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary
Researchers, doctors, public health officials and parents are trying to understand the impact of screen time on children.
Some historians argue that all new technology has been vilified – from the press and television to digital technology. Others argue that the accessibility, intensity and desirability of digital media is different. And research shows that 98 percent of children are now living in a home with a device connected to the Internet, with children spending a considerable amount of time online.
In a study published today in JAMA Pediatrics, we find a measurable association between how small children are using screens and how they are reaching their developmental milestones.
We found that higher levels of screen time at two and three years predict unfavorable outcomes of the child at three and five years, respectively.
Children Exceeding Screen Time Guidelines
Approximately 2,400 mothers from Calgary, Alberta, reported the amount of screen time consumed by their children.
Our study found that, on average, children were seen at 2.4, 3.6 and 1.6 hours per day at two, three and five years of age, respectively.
These numbers far exceed the recommendations of the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics – that children between two and five years of age do not see more than one hour of high-quality programming per day.
The chicken or the egg?
We also provide mothers with a screening assessment widely used to see if their children reached developmental goals for communication, motor skills, problem solving, and social skills.
To measure communication in a child of three years, for example, we can ask if a child can identify the common parts of the body. For motor skills, we can ask if a child can stand on one foot or put bills on a rope.
We use a longitudinal design to understand whether higher levels of screen time predict children's performance, or whether struggling children are placed farther in front of screens to help manage their challenging behaviors.
Although higher levels of screen time predicted more unfavorable outcomes, the opposite pattern was not observed. That is, we found no evidence of backward milestones leading to higher levels of screen time.
Digital interface or missed opportunities?
Because we only look at the total number of hours on screens, we do not know what apps, games, or websites kids are using. Is streaming media, video games or applications that are to blame? Are passive versus active forms of digital technology? Does it matter if children are watching screens alone or with caregivers? These are important considerations in future research.
In addition, our study is not able to directly determine how the screen time delays the development of children. Two prominent ideas exist. The first idea is called direct effects and suggests that something about the digital interface (bright lights, highly enhanced gameplay and repetitive rewards) is compromising the development.
The other idea is the loss of opportunities and suggests that when children are watching the screens, they are missing opportunities to practice development – like talking, running, and interacting with others.
The Art of Screen Time
Our study shows an association between screen time and child development. This does not mean that one causes the other.
To determine this, standard gold-standard experimental designs that randomly assign children to receive or not receive screen time and then see how they develop are needed.
Given the ethical challenges of such a study and the ubiquity of digital technology, such research is almost impossible. So studies like ours – that follow children over time and apply sophisticated statistics – are the next best thing to understand associations.
Families can work to balance digital media at home and we believe that digital media can be used positively. It is when they are overused that problems are likely to arise.
As noted in The Art of Screen Time, it is best to take advantage of the screens, not much and especially with other people.
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