Handing your child a device to entertain them might seem harmless, but recent findings show that it might have lasting effects on their development.
A new comprehensive study published in JAMA Pediatrics highlights the link between screen time and developmental delays in children, sparking a much-needed conversation.
Here’s what you need to know.
Understanding the Study
The study was conducted in Japan between July 2013 and March 2017 as part of a broader effort to understand the developmental implications of screen time in children. It took place within the Tohoku Medical Megabank Project Birth and Three-Generation Cohort Study and examined the screen time habits of 7,097 mother-child pairs.
It followed the screen time of children when they were one year old and looked at how it affected their development in five areas:
- Gross motor skills
- Fine motor skills
- Personal and social skills at ages 2 and 4
Parents provided the data about their children’s screen time through self-reporting surveys.
The results of the study were significant:
- Less than 1 hour: 48.5% of the children had less than 1 hour of screen exposure per day. This group didn’t show any specific risk or association with developmental delays.
- 1 to less than 2 hours: 29.5% of the children were exposed to screens for this duration. This group had a noticeable risk of developmental delay in communication.
- 2 to less than 4 hours: 17.9% of the children fell into this category. Here, delays were observed in communication and problem-solving skills.
- 4 or more hours: Only 4.1% of the children were exposed to screens for 4+ hours per day. This group showed a higher risk in all studied domains of development, suggesting that more screen time is associated with more significant developmental delays.
Children who had spent four or more hours a day with screens demonstrated significant risks in several developmental areas.
By age 2, these children were 4.78 times more likely to experience delays in communication skills, 1.74 times more likely to have below-average fine motor skills, and twice as likely to show underdevelopment in personal and social skills.
Interestingly, as the children grew, some of these risks diminished. By age 4, the increased risk remained only in the communication and problem-solving categories, indicating that excessive screen time may have more long-term effects on these specific areas of development.
But why does screen time have such an impact on development?
Here’s how experts explain it:
- Loss of Communication Practice: Children need to practice speaking, and screens might limit this opportunity, affecting their language development.
- Diminished Interpersonal Relationships: Screen time can reduce face-to-face interactions, hindering social skills development.
- Physical Development: Passive screen viewing can make children more sedentary, limiting their motor skills practice.
- Emotional Development: Handing a device to pacify a child might prevent them from learning to navigate discomfort, affecting emotional growth.
“Very often, if they’re just watching a screen, they’re not having an opportunity to practice talking.” – Dr. John Hutton, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
However, the study did have limitations. Due to social desirability bias — parents wanting to say the “right” or socially acceptable thing — there may have been underreporting of screen time and overreporting of developmental progress.
Additionally, the authors didn’t have details on what the children’s screen time involved, and not all forms are equal in their capacity to harm or benefit.
Healthier Ways to Occupy Your Child
- Opt for books, coloring materials, or toys.
- If screens are necessary, choose educational content or video chats.
- Be selective about when to rely on screens and turn off devices when not in use.
- Set an example by controlling your screen time, as children tend to mimic what they see.
Navigating Screen Time
In conclusion, this study highlights the impact of screen time on young children’s development but acknowledges limitations such as parental reporting bias and content ambiguity.
While there’s no universal solution, awareness of screen content and its role in a child’s life can guide healthier habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes quality and offers resources for customized family guidelines.
Takahashi, I., Obara, T., Ishikuro, M., et al. (2023). Screen Time at Age 1 Year and Communication and Problem-Solving Developmental Delay at 2 and 4 Years. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online August 21, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2023.3057