Study links high levels of screen time to slower child development

A study has linked high levels of screen time with delayed development in children, reigniting the row over the extent to which parents should limit how long their offspring spend with electronic devices.

Researchers in Canada say children who spent more time with screens at two years of age did worse on tests of development at age three than children who had spent little time with devices. A similar result was found when children’s screen time at three years old was compared with their development at five years.

“What is new in this study is that we are studying really young children, so aged 2-5, when brain development is really rapidly progressing and also child development is unfolding so rapidly,” Dr Sheri Madigan, first author of the study from the University of Calgary, told the Guardian. “We are getting at these lasting effects,” she added of the study.

The authors say parents should be cautious about how long children are allowed to spend with devices.

“Excessive screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally,” they write. “It is recommended that paediatricians and healthcare practitioners guide parents on appropriate amounts of screen exposure and discuss potential consequences of excessive screen use.”

But the results have been contested by others in the field who say the study did not take into account what the children were using the screens for, and that the influence of screens had a smaller effect than other factors such as income, the child’s sleep and whether they were read to.

Writing in the journal Jama Pediatrics, researchers from the University of Waterloo, the University of Calgary and Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute describe how they investigated the issue by looking at the screen time and development of more than 2,400 children between the ages of two and five. Data was collected at least once for each child.

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. They also completed standard questionnaires to assess their child’s development, with questions including whether the child could complete tasks such as drawing particular shapes, copying certain behaviours or forming sentences – tasks covering areas from fine motor control to communication skills.

Other aspects of the child’s life, such as their sleep and whether they had books read to them, were also considered.

On average children spent about 17 hours a week in front of screens at two years old, increasing to almost 25 hours a week at three years, before falling to 11 hours a week at five years of age.

The team say a clear trend emerged: the more time children were reported to be spending in front of screens, the worse they did on development tests. Those who spent longer with screens at 24 months showed worse performance on tests at 36 months, and a similar trend was seen for screen time at 36 months and test performance at five years.

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


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