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Just about every parent will admit to sometime letting the kids watch TV while they cook dinner, kill time on the iPad at the restaurant and play video games for fun. But according to a study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, all those hours of electronic babysitting come at a steep cost—especially for children under five.
“What we found in this study is that kids who get excessive screen time are experiencing delays in development,” says Sheri Madigan, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, and lead author of the study.
In fact, excessive screen time is believed to a be a contributing factor in the growing problem of school readiness—an estimated one in four Canadian children are starting kindergarten inadequately prepared for learning.
“If kids are in front of screens, there are a lot of missed opportunities for learning,” says Madigan, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in the Determinants of Child Development. “You’re watching a screen, so you’re not learning how to ride a bike, or throw a ball, or print your name, or you’re not interacting with your caregiver, which, when positive, can be really important for helping kids thrive.”
The study explored the link between screen time and early child development in 2,500 Alberta homes between 2011 and 2016. Caregivers reported on the number of hours their kids spent using electronics devices including TVs, smart phones and tablets, video games and other digital mediums. The children monitored spent, on average, 2.4, 3.6 and 1.6 hours of screen time per day at ages two, three and five, respectively. These amounts all exceed the Canadian Pediatric Society’s recommended guidelines of no more than one hour a day (of preferably educational programming) for kids between two and five years old.
The study simultaneously assessed child development at ages two, three and five by asking caregivers to complete the Ages and Stages questionnaire, which is a screening measure for a variety of different developmental outcomes.
“It looks at communication skills, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving, and the social and emotional skills. The questions change, but at each age it’s trying to get at whether children are meeting their developmental milestones,” says Madigan. “What these findings tell us is that one reason there may be disparities in learning and behavior at school entry is because some kids are in front of screens far too often in early childhood.”
Looking at children’s development over time enabled researchers to solve what had been a “chicken and egg” question. Was too much screen time causing developmental delays? Or were delayed children, who perhaps had more challenging behaviours, being plunked in front of screens more often to help them (and their parents) cope? The longitudinal nature of the study let its authors pinpoint the directionality of association. What they found, unequivocally, is that it’s the excess screen time that causes the delays.
What they still don’t know is the “how.”
“We know that there’s a link there, what we need to do is really try and figure out what’s happening that’s creating these associations. The how. And missed opportunity (sitting in front of a screen instead of drawing, building with Lego or playing outside) is probably a really critical piece of that puzzle,” says Madigan.
The good news, say the authors, is that children’s brains keep developing after age five and beyond into adulthood, so it’s never too late to make changes. We can’t get rid of phones and Netflix, but we can manage our kids’ digital consumption. Madigan recommends coming up with a “media plan” that dictates when and where devices can be used in the home: “It’s about how to use them responsibly and how to really foster healthy device habits.”
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