Letting a small child spend a lot of time using tablets, cell phones and other electronic devices with screens may delay the development of language and sociability skills, according to a Canadian study.
The survey, which tracked about 2,500 2-year-olds, is the latest evidence in the debate over how long screen usage is safe for children.
In Canada and the United States, experts say children should not use screens before they are 18 months old.
In the UK, where no such limit has been set, the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) says there is not enough evidence, even when including this new study, to establish a “direct negative effect” of this behavior.
What does the survey say?
Mothers were consulted about screen time between 2011 and 2016 and completed questionnaires about their children’s abilities and development when they were 2, 3, and 5 years old.
This included watching TV shows, movies or videos, playing video games and using a computer, tablet, cell phone or any device with a screen.
At age 2, children spent an average of 17 hours in front of screens per week. This increased to about 25 hours at 3 years, but fell to about 11 hours at age 5, when the children started in elementary school.
The findings, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, suggest that there is an increase in screen time before any developmental delay is noticed, rather than in a scenario in which children with developmental disabilities start using screens longer.
But it is unclear whether increased use of screens is directly responsible. The longer screen time can be a simultaneous aspect to others linked to developmental delays, such as how the child is educated and what the child does in the rest of his or her leisure time.
What do scientists indicate?
When young children are looking at screens, they may be missing opportunities to practice and master other important skills.
In theory, this could disrupt social interactions and limit the time that children spend running and practicing other physical abilities.
Even with no concrete evidence of damage, scientist Sheri Madigan and her colleagues, the study’s authors, say it still makes sense to limit children’s screen time and ensure that it does not interfere with “interpersonal interactions or family time” .
They also said that perhaps they should have accompanied even smaller children because it is becoming increasingly common for babies to use screens.
How much screen time is excessive?
That’s a good question, without a satisfactory answer. The new study makes no recommendation in this regard. Some of the 2-year-olds were spending more than four hours a day, or 28 hours a week, in front of screens, according to their mothers.
The guidelines of the American Pediatric Association (AAP) indicate:
* For children under 18 months, avoid any use of the screen in addition to video calls;
* Parents of children ages 18 to 24 months who wish to introduce digital media use should choose quality programming and watch with their children to help them understand what they are seeing;
* For children from 2 to 5 years, the use of screens should be limited to one hour a day and quality programs. Parents should attend with their children;
* For children 6 years and older, impose consistent limits, ensuring that screen time does not disturb sleep and physical activity.
The Canadian Pediatric Society goes further, saying that children under the age of 2 should not wear screens.
RCPCH published guidelines earlier this year, but set no limits. The organization says that “evidence is weak to guide parents about the appropriate level of screen time” and that “can not recommend a screen time limit for children in general.”
Instead, he advises families to ask themselves:
* Is the screen time in your home checked?
* Does the use of screens interfere with what the family wants to do?
* Does the use of screens interfere with sleep?
* Can you control what your child eats during the screen time?
If a family is satisfied with the answers, then it is likely to be doing well on this complex issue, says the RCPCH.
How to reduce screen time?
The AAP advises families to establish periods when media are not used, such as meals or car trips, as well as places in the house where media is not allowed, such as bedrooms.
The RCPCH says that adults should analyze their own time to use screens and set a good example.
Most experts also advise children not to use screens one hour before bed so their brains have time to relax to sleep.
“We still need more research to say whether children are more vulnerable to screen damage and what impact that can have on their mental health,” said Bernadka Dubicka of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
“We also need to evaluate the effects of different types of content, because there are also positive ways to use screens.”