A new study suggests screen time could delay children’s communication, motor, and problem-solving skills

Researchers followed 2,441 children over a five-year span and found that those who used screens more often at ages 2 and 3 had significant developmental delays between the ages of 3 and 5.

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Researchers followed 2,441 children over a five-year span and found that those who used screens more often at ages 2 and 3 had significant developmental delays between the ages of 3 and 5.
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Shutterstock/ESB Professional

  • A new study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked at the effects of screen time on young children and found an association between children’s screen exposure and their development.
  • Researchers followed 2,441 children over a five-year span and found that those who used screens more often at ages 2 and 3 performed worse on developmental screening tests between the ages of 3 and 5, Dr. Sheri Madigan, the lead researcher of the study, told INSIDER.
  • While other factors, like socioeconomic status, can also contribute to a child’s developmental issues, Madigan said screen time is one that can be more easily adjusted for better health outcomes.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) offers guidelines on how often young children should use screens.

As more children are raised in a digital world, researchers, doctors, and parents are becoming more concerned with the ways screens can affect children’s health. The most recent studies on screen time and its effects on children have offered conflicting results, with some suggesting screens have a negligible impact and others finding that too much screen time can be detrimental.

A new long-term study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked into these effects further and found an association between excessive screen time and developmental delays in young children.

Screen time can potentially impede a child’s early development

The study, which followed 2,441 children from their time in utero through the age of 5, analyzed how different amounts of screen time affected the children’s overall development. At ages 2, 3, and 5, researchers conducted surveys to find out how much screen time children were getting a day and the types of screens they were using.

The researchers found that, between the ages of 2 and 5, children were watching between 1.6 and 3.6 hours of television a day.

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The researchers found that, between the ages of 2 and 5, children were watching between 1.6 and 3.6 hours of television a day.
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Shutterstock

Researchers then analyzed this information alongside data about each child’s development, including their progression of motor skills, communication skills, and problem-solving skills. Milestones, like putting words together at age 2 and creating four to five-word sentences at age 5, were considered markers of a child’s developmental progress, Dr. Sheri Madigan, lead author of the study, told INSIDER.

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At the end of the five-year study, researchers found that for 2-, 3-, and 5-year-olds, the average amount of weekly screen time was 17.1, 25, and 10.9 hours, respectively. The children who were exposed to more screen time were found to have delayed skill development during what is considered “a critical period of growth and maturation,” the study’s authors wrote.

Although the researchers couldn’t pinpoint a specific amount of screen time that may cause developmental delays, they did find that kids who used screens more often generally experienced developmental milestones later than their peers. This can often affect future development milestones, Madigan explained.

“If a child needs to run, they have to walk first,” she told INSIDER. “It happens in a sequential order, so if they don’t master the first skill it’ll be harder for them to catch up and gain mastery.”

Screens aren’t the only factor affecting childhood development, but their role shouldn’t be ignored

Madigan and her team recognized that other factors, like socioeconomic status, can also contribute to childhood developmental issues, and may explain the contradictory results of other screen time studies.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Cognition and Development, for example, found that children with parents of lower socioeconomic status got lower scores on cognitive development tests.

Elementary school children share an electronic tablet on the first day of class in the new school year.

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Elementary school children share an electronic tablet on the first day of class in the new school year.
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Reuters/Eric Gaillard

Although Madigan’s team isolated screen time in their experiment, they understand that economic barriers, lack of physical activity, and poor sleep habits may also contribute to a child’s developmental delays.

“The associations we found [between screen time and development] are what we consider small and we aren’t saying screen time is the only factor,” Madigan said.

Excessive screen time, however, is a factor that can be more easily fixed, according to Madigan, so zeroing in on its potential effects can better inform parents about actionable ways to keep their kids’ brains and bodies healthy.

“It’s quite difficult to change someone’s income, but we can more easily modify screens or at least use them in moderation,” she explained.

Existing guidelines can help parents determine how much screen time is acceptable for their children

For parents who are concerned about their children’s screen time habits and the resulting effects, Madigan said there is still time to turn things around.

“It takes parents sitting down and deciding as a family how they’ll use screens in moderation,” Madigan said. “There are always spots along the trajectory where change can be made and with those changes you’ll see subsequent changes in development.”

Madigan suggested parents use the current screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to get their family on the right track. The AAP’s most recent screen time recommendations include limiting it to one hour per day for 2- to 5-year-olds and setting individualized screen time boundaries for kids ages 6 and older. Additionally, the AAP recommends children 18 months and younger only use screens for video chatting as needed.

As for future research, Madigan believes determining the “tipping point,” or exact of amount of screen time needed to create significant developmental delays, in an important next step.

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.