Too much screen time can negatively affect a young child’s development, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Calgary.
The study, published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, followed a group of 2,441 children between 2011 and 2016, measuring their screen time as well as their progress in meeting various developmental milestones.
The researchers found that higher levels of screen time at two and three years old was associated with poorer performance on a developmental screening test by age five.
This means that children weren’t meeting benchmarks in communication, social skills, problem-solving and motor skills, said Sheri Madigan, a lead researcher on the study and assistant professor in psychology at the University of Calgary.
“When children are watching a considerable amount of screens at the ages of two and three, we’re seeing some lasting impacts on their development.”
In this study, two-year-olds were spending an average of 2.4 hours using screens daily. Three-year-olds were spending 3.6 hours, and five-year-olds, 1.6 hours. The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that children between the ages of two and five use screens for less than one hour per day.
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Most Canadian children get far more screen time than that, said Dr. Michelle Ponti, head of the pediatric society’s digital task force, and a lead author on the CPS’s guidelines. Research is starting to show that this is associated with some negative things, she said.
“We’re finding early literacy delays, we’re finding delays in school readiness skills, we’re finding delays in social and emotional skills.”
Because screen time is generally a sedentary activity, she said that research is also starting to show an association with physical consequences like a higher likelihood of being overweight or obese.
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According to Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of healthy active living and obesity research at the CHEO Research Institute, this study is important because it measured direction — that screen time caused the poorer test scores, not that kids who already had behaviour issues, for example, were more likely to spend a lot of time on screens.
He’s concerned that the children were missing developmental milestones. “That’s a trajectory that they’re on. So what’s the consequence at the next measurement point? And the next measurement point?”
“We don’t know how far past that these delays in achieving developmental milestones will last,” Madigan said.
Children don’t learn from screens the same way that they learn from live people, or by doing things, Ponti said. “They don’t know what they see on a 2-D screen, how to transfer that into 3-D life.”
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She also believes that how children use screens is important, as well as how much they use them, something that wasn’t addressed in this study. An 18-month-old baby using Skype to interact with their grandparents won’t come to harm, she said, because the child’s parents are explaining what’s happening, showing their toddler how to wave to grandma and so on.
“It’s when we just plunk our kids in front of screen as kind of that digital babysitter, we don’t know what they’re looking at, what they’re accessing, we’re not interacting with them, that’s where the dangers come in.”
It’s easy for parents to fall into the trap of handing their child a phone to quiet them when they’re having a temper tantrum, she said, but that reinforces bad behaviour. While everyone will do this on occasion, she suggests that parents develop a plan for where and how to use screens in their lives, and try to stick to it.
“If you plan that you’re going to have some screen-free times and screen-free zones in your life, I think you’re going to be less likely to fall into the trap of whipping it out every time your child acts up.”