Screen time for tots may affect development years later

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A 2017 report by Common Sense Media found that children eight years old and younger spend more than two hours a day on average with screen media.

Others said a study that followed children over time, rather than just offering a snapshot of development and screen time, was welcome but they noted that the study had limitations, including that it did not consider developments in technology since 2016, or look at which types of screen were being used.

Madigan found that on average, the children in the study were spending about 2-3 hours a day in front of a screen.

Higher levels of screen time at the ages of two and three years turned out to be "significantly associated" with poorer test results at three and five years. These amounts exceed the Canadian Pediatrics Society's recommended pediatric guideline which states that children aged two to five spend no more than one hour per day with high-quality programming, geared towards learning and development.

In a study published today in JAMA Pediatrics, we find a measurable association between how much young children are using screens and how well they are meeting their developmental milestones.

Although the researchers did not examine the relationship between screen time and developmental outcomes numerically, they found "a stable association" between screen time and child developmental screening test scores that was not accounted for by other factors, according to the study.

"It's creating some disparities in terms of children's development, where the kids who are watching screens are having some compromised development, whereas we're not seeing that with kids who have a low amount of screen time viewing", Madigan said in an interview.

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Researchers determined children who spent additional time watching television or tablets were more likely to struggle with communication and fine motor skills.

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. For instance, young children may be missing opportunities to practise walking or to interact with their caregivers.

Are you able to control snacking during screen time? Almost 2,500 Alberta families participated in the project and documented their children's screen time. "Families can develop healthy media habits", she says. While some argue screen time is harmful for children's mental and physical health, others warn of moral panic, and say evidence on the issue is of poor quality and that there is no clear sign of harm. That also includes computers, gaming devices, and even TVs.

Madigan was supported by the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation and the Canada Research Chairs program. Furthermore, it did not show which areas of development in particular were most affected by screen time or give an idea of how much was too much when it came to using devices. When children use their bodies to explore and react to the things around them, the visual and tactile input to their brains is more significant, compared to swiping objects on the phone.

However, she added that parents shouldn't panic, since the field of research into screen time and its effects on development is in its infancy.

Researchers recommend families prepare a media plan including rules for when devices can be used and for how long.