Too much screen time leaves children unprepared for real life: new study
The Sector > Research > Too much screen time leaves children unprepared for real life: new study

Too much screen time leaves children unprepared for real life: new study

by Jason Roberts

January 31, 2019
The average eight year old has spent a year in front of a screen

Excessive screen time is a key contributor to children starting their school years inadequately prepared for learning, a new study led by the University of Calgary, Canada, has shown.


The study aimed to address whether screen time was associated with poor performance on children’s developmental screening tests, and found that one in four Canadian children are starting their school years showing deficits and delays in developmental outcomes, such as language, communication, motor skills, and/or socioemotional health.


How the study was completed


The study focused on early childhood development in 2,441 mothers and children, between 2011 and 2016. Statistical analyses then found that higher levels of screen time in children aged 24 and 36 months were associated with poor performance on a screening measure assessing children’s achievement of development milestones at 36 and 60 months, respectively.


Using a longitudinal, three-wave study technique, researchers were able to address the question: what comes first – delays in development or excessive screen time viewing? Results suggested that screen time is likely the initial factor, with greater screen time at 24 months associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months, and so on, whereas the obverse was not observed.


Screen time likely reduced in older children due to ECEC and schooling


Children that participated in the study aged 24, 36 and 60 months, on average watched approximately 17, 25 and 11 hours of television per week, amounting to approximately 2.4, 3.6 and 1.6 hours of screen time per day, respectively. The researchers said that this amount of screen time is consistent with a recent report that suggests children in the United States are watching 2 hours and 19 minutes of programming a day, on average.


Researchers estimated that the reduction in screen time at 60 months was likely a reflection of the children commencing primary school, and outside school hours care activities, resulting in less time at home and a natural reduction in screen time.


The developmental impact of screen time


“Child development unfolds rapidly in the first five years of life. The present study examined developmental outcomes during a critical period of growth and maturation, revealing that screen time can impinge on children’s ability to develop optimally,” the study’s authors said.


“When young children are observing screens, they may be missing important opportunities to practice and master interpersonal, motor, and communication skills. For example, when children are observing screens without an interactive or physical component, they are more sedentary and, therefore, not practicing gross motor skills, such as walking and running, which in turn may delay development in this area.”


Screens were also found to disrupt interactions with caregivers by limiting opportunities for verbal and nonverbal social exchanges.


The researchers noted that both screen time and performance on developmental screening tests were influenced by contextual factors such as family income, maternal depression, child sleep, the child being read to regularly, and the child being female.


How can early childhood services help?


The report recommends that pediatricians and health care practitioners guide parents on appropriate amounts of screen exposure and discuss potential consequences of excessive screen use, encourage families to develop ‘family media plans’ to manage screen time, as well as emphasise that the most effective methods for enhancing child development is through “high-quality caregiver-child interactions without the distraction of screens”.


“As technology use is entrenched in the modern-day lives of individuals, understanding the directional association between screen time and its correlates, and taking family-based steps to engage with technology in positive ways may be fundamental to ensuring developmental success of children growing up in a digital age,” said the report’s authors.

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