January 31, 2019

Screen time predicts delays in child development, says new research, with ninety-eight per cent of children living in homes with internet-connected devices.

Dillon Thomas Browne, University of Waterloo; Nicole Racine, University of Calgary, and Sheri Madigan, University of Calgary

Researchers, doctors, public health officials and parents are all trying to make sense of the impact of screen time on children.

Some historians argue that every new technology has been vilified — from the printing press and television to digital technology. Others argue that the accessibility, intensity and desirability of digital media is different. And research shows that 98 per cent of children are now living in a home with an internet-connected device, with kids spending a considerable amount of their time online.

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.

We found that higher levels of screen time at two and three years predict poorer child outcomes at three and five years, respectively.

Children exceeding screen time guidelines

Approximately 2,400 mothers from Calgary, Alberta reported on the amount of screen time their children consumed.

Our study revealed that on average children were viewing screens for 2.4, 3.6 and 1.6 hours per day at two, three and five years of age, respectively.

These numbers far exceed recommendations by the Canadian Paediatric Society and American Academy of Pediatrics — that children between two and five years view no more than one hour of high-quality programming per day.



While children are looking at smartphones, they’re missing opportunities to play outdoors and learn about social relationships.
(Unsplash/limor zellermayer), CC BY

The chicken or the egg?

We also gave the mothers a widely used screening assessment to see whether their kids met developmental targets for communication, motor skills, problem-solving and social skills.

To measure communication in a three-year-old, for example, we might ask if a child can identify the common body parts. For motor skills, we might ask if a child can stand on one foot or put beads on a string.




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We used a longitudinal design to understand whether higher levels of screen time predict how kids are doing, or whether kids who struggle get put in front of screens more to help manage their challenging behaviours.

While higher levels of screen time did predict poorer outcomes, the opposite pattern was not observed. That is, we did not find evidence of delayed milestones leading to higher levels of screen time.

Digital interface or missed opportunities?

Because we only looked at total number of hours on screens, we don’t know which apps, games or websites children are using. Is it streaming media, video games or apps that are the culprits? Is it passive versus active forms of digital technology? Does it matter if children are watching screens alone or with caregivers? These are important considerations in future research.



A run through the streets is better for a child’s physical development than a computer game.
(Unsplash/wayne lee sing), CC BY

Also, our study is not able to directly determine how screen time delays child development. Two prominent ideas exist. The first idea is called direct effects, and suggests that something about the digital interface (bright lights, highly reinforcing game play and repetitive rewards) is compromising development.

The other idea is missed opportunities, and suggests that when children are watching screens they are missing out on opportunities to practise development — such as talking, running and interacting with others.

The art of screen time

Our study shows an association between screen time and child development. This does not mean that one causes the other.

To determine that, gold-standard experimental designs that randomly assign children to receive or not receive screen time, and then see how they develop, are needed.

Given the ethical challenges of such a study and the ubiquity of digital technology, this type of research is nearly impossible. So studies like ours — that follow children over time and apply sophisticated statistics — are the next best thing to understanding associations.

Families can work to balance digital media in the home, and we believe that digital mediums can be used positively. It’s when they are used in excess that problems likely arise.

As noted in The Art of Screen Time, it’s best to enjoy screens, not too much and mostly with others.The Conversation

Dillon Thomas Browne, Assistant Professor, University of Waterloo; Nicole Racine, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Calgary, and Sheri Madigan, Assistant Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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  • It will be interesting to see just how much difference to a child’s abilities there are in the next decade. One thing that has been proven is that young children no longer have the ability of facial recognition, because their parents rarely look at them – too busy on their own devices to see what is missing in their child’s development – them. It also causes bad stranger danger conception as all faces look the same – think about it mums.

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  • Adults don’t stop to think about at what age a child’s brain is developed enough to cope with such gadgets. Also because children have their heads down while using them, there has been reports of children suffering from neck and shoulder pain. It often takes a few months to be evident.
    Some schools have them in classrooms for children who haven’t been at school for long at all. I know of one school that one building has pupils ranging from reception to year 2. When I attended a school reunion there in 2011 some of those rooms had computers in them.

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  • I know many new things often get vilified but… I am greatly concerned at what technology is doing to our children and ot society. It’s too early to have real research and understandings, but I worry about the effect on vision, brain development, neck and back muscles, behaviour, social cues, etc. Technology is great for many and great for much of our life’s uses now, but… observing my child and the younger children of today, I do have concerns for their future.

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  • It’s bad when doctors say that young children don’t get enough time with their parents to recognize good facial recognition – smiles, frowns, and who is the stranger in the house. Doesn’t bode well for the future.

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  • Hopefully parents will wake up that it is not a good baby sitting tool. Sad to hear kids saying things like “in the real world”. Great to see so many kids on the beach this summer where I live, I think more than last year, I even saw a few people reading books rather than phones.

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  • This modern world is really too much focused on digital world. I think every family should have set rules about screen-time.

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  • They definitely need to research further.

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  • Think it all comes down to balance. For social skills and physical exercise, playing with other kids outdoors sure is important. But there are many games on the iPads our kids learn a lot from !

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  • Sounds like there is still a lot more research to do but it’s good they are looking into it.

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  • I feel if it’s educwtional they will benefit

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  • My son has a good balance of screen time and no screen time here. He is extremely advanced in language for his age, so I think we have the balance right. He prefers to play outside more than tv…unless Blippi is on lol

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  • I know of a toddler who uses her Mum’s phone to play a favourite game. Axccording to tests by experts she is at least 12 months ahead of what she should be in almost everything despite having had a stroke.

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  • Interesting read, my kids have iPads, but we dont use them every day etc.. mainly long car trips or on days after big days out. My children and 5/7 and have always meet ur passed their milestones

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  • My kids have had a lot of screen time from about 2 years old and both (now 8 and 10) are very bright, verbal and cluey. It hasn’t harmed them at all.

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  • I wouldn’t introduce screen time till at least four years of age, and even then it would be limited. The brain needs to make lots of neurological connections that are made when a child is exploring the natural world around them.

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