Can Too Much Screen Time Hinder Child Development?

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Jan. 28, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Young children spend a lot of time fiddling with smartphones, tapping away at tablets and staring at TV screens.

Could this time be taking away from their early physical and mental development?

A new study argues that's precisely the case -- screen time can affect how well children perform on developmental tests.

"Kids who are being put in front of screens are showing delayed development," said lead researcher Sheri Madigan. She is research chair of child development with the University of Calgary's department of psychology, in Canada.

For the study, Madigan and her colleagues tracked the progress of over 2,400 children in Calgary, asking mothers to fill out questionnaires assessing the kids' screen time and development at ages 2, 3 and 5 years.

Watching TV, using a computer, playing video games, and goofing around with tablets or smartphones were among the types of screen time reported.

"We found that, on average, children are viewing screens somewhere between two and three hours per day," Madigan said. "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).

Higher levels of screen time at ages 2 and 3 wound up significantly associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at ages 3 and 5, the researchers reported.

These screening tools tested kids regarding their communication, problem-solving, social and motor skills, Madigan said.

By observing the kids' screen use and progress over time, researchers ruled out the possibility that the association might work the other way -- kids with existing developmental problems being put in front of screens more frequently as a means of controlling their behavior, Madigan noted.

"We actually don't see the reverse association," Madigan said.

Too much screen time could affect kids' development in a couple of possible ways, although a cause-and-effect link hasn't been proven, she said.

Spending time on a screen might cause kids to miss opportunities for learning. "When kids are in front of screens, they are missing out on opportunities to practice their gross motor skills like riding a bike or running around playing," Madigan explained.