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More Screen Time for Young Kids Now, Poorer Development Later?

Higher levels of screen time were linked with poorer developmental outcomes in children, a Canadian retrospective longitudinal study found.

In a sample of over 2,000 mother-child pairs, higher levels of screen time for children at age 2 was significantly associated with lower scores on developmental tests at age 3, and higher screen time at age 3 was linked with lower scores on these tests at age 5, reported Sheri Madigan, PhD, of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and colleagues.

However, the association was not bidirectional and lower scores on developmental screening tests were not correlated to higher amounts of screen time, they wrote in JAMA Pediatrics.

“One of the primary concerns around parents these days is about screen time and we wanted to find out more about its importance, especially in early childhood years when their brains are developing so rapidly and presumably the impact of screens can be considerable,” Madigan told MedPage Today.

Jenny Radesky, MD, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was not a part of this study, but was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement “Media and Young Minds.” The policy statement recommends no more than 1 hour of screen time per day for children from the ages of 2 to 5.

Radesky said excessive screen time can “displace” other activities, like sleep, social activities, or motor skills, which all have effects on child development. Kids may also experience an overwhelming cognitive load while spending time on screens, which can cause their executive functioning to decrease after they consume media, she said.

“When you are trying to process information coming at you from screen media, it may be too advanced for you,” Radesky told MedPage Today. “When you have a heavier cognitive or emotional load from the media content, kids may be a little more disorganized in their thinking immediately after.”

This study used data from the All Our Families study, which recruited pregnant women at ≤24 gestational weeks who were ages ≥18 and English-speaking from May 2008 to December 2010.

In total, 2,441 mothers completed questionnaires for their children at least once when children were ages 24, 36, or 60 months. Mothers responded to the Ages and Stages Questionnaire Third Edition (ASQ-3), which examines a child’s developmental progress in terms of communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal-social skills at 24, 36, and 60 months. Mothers also assessed how much time their children spent watching television, movies, computers, or other screen-based devices on a given day.

Most mothers were white (77.8%), married (82%), and had household incomes over $80,000 (66%), while slightly less than half of the children in the study were boys (47.9%).

Overall, mothers reported their children spent a mean 2.4 hours a day on screens at age 24 months, 3.6 hours a day at 36 months, and 1.6 hours a day at 60 months, they reported.

Researchers found that greater screen time at 24 and 36 months was significantly associated with “poorer performance” on developmental screening tests at 36 months (β −0.08, 95% CI −0.13 to −0.02) and 60 months (β −0.06, 95% CI −0.13 to −0.02).

Girls were more likely to score higher on developmental tests (β 0.23, 95% CI 0.18-0.27) and tended to have less screen time (β −0.06, 95% CI −0.11 to −0.02). Other predictors for both higher person-level mean scores on developmental tests and lower person-level means of screen time included child exposure to reading, hours of sleep per night and when mothers reported lower maternal depression and higher household income, the authors said.

Limitations included the research team’s inability to account for screen time children experienced before age 2 and to distinguish between specific types of screen time, such as whether children were watching educational apps. The data was also based on mothers’ reports and may be subject to bias. Lastly, the authors noted that it is possible that since the study was conducted, technology has evolved, causing media consumption to change and have different effects on youth.

Madigan was supported by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Canada Research Chairs program.

One co-author received grants from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, Alberta Innovates Health Solutions, the MaxBell Foundation, CanFASD, and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

The All Our Families study was supported by grants from the Alberta Innovates Health Solutions Interdisciplinary Team and a co-author of this study was the principal investigator.