A large Canadian study links higher screen use to delayed development in young children. The findings are open for debate, however, as multiple factors remain unaccounted for.
What was the study?
The research followed nearly 2,500 toddlers and collected data once children turned 2, 3, and 5 years old. Mothers were asked to approximate the number of hours their children spent in front of a screen, and to complete an Ages & Stages Questionnaire to assess the development progress.
What did they learn?
The key finding is that greater screen time at ages 2 and 3 is a predictor of delayed development at ages 3 and 5 respectively. In particular, greater screen times are associated with an average of 7% drop in development scores.
What where the conclusions?
While the authors were reluctant to provide any strong-worded conclusions, they did recommend using screens in moderation and creating tailored media plans so as not to interfere with child’s development. The study doesn’t go into specifics, but the advice looks most in line with what could be achieved by parental control software — using special apps to create schedules and moderate the types of content children can access.
How reliable is the study?
There is no question about the association between screen time and developmental delays, but the nature of this association is far from transparent. Does one cause the other? If yes, then which one? And what other factors may be at play? Let’s see what else was and wasn’t in the study.
The most obvious question is about the relationship between screen time and development. The immediate assumption is that the more time children spend looking at a screen, the less time they spend learning about the real world, and thus end up with delays in development. But an equally plausible explanation is that children with delays in development are more challenging to manage, forcing parents to resort to screens more often. For now, there is no way to tell which one is true.
Another important question, not addressed in the study, is about the circumstances of screen time. Was it passive or interactive? Was it TV, laptop, tablet, or smartphone? Was it supervised? What kind of content was consumed? The current thinking is that the way screens are used is far more important than the duration of use. Knowing the types of content children were consuming could have made a significant difference.
Also, while mentioning it briefly, the study did not explore the influence of other factors on both screen time and child’s development. Within the study, such factors as sleep duration, income, child’s gender, maternal positivity, and reading to a child were all shown to be much more significant predictors of developmental outcomes. Some of the factors were also associated with how much screen time a child is getting. Without jumping to any conclusions, we can safely say that screen time and development should not be discussed in isolation from other contributing factors.
What does this mean for parents?
Until a much more detailed study is conducted over a longer time, this one could be described as inconclusive at best. For now, your best guide on screens and parenting is common sense. And common sense says that what you need is a wholesome approach. While screens shouldn’t cut into bedtime or be used as a substitute for… anything really, they are still an essential part of modern upbringing.
Use screens to ease your children into technology, supervise them, offer your help when necessary. Try to avoid passive content, like autoplay videos or apps that encourage mindless swiping. Instead, opt for apps that are educational and interactive, like Nicola — an app that helps to develop a habit of reading. With over 20,000 educational apps out there, you can turn screen time into a tool for aiding, rather than impeding your child’s development. Good luck!
Madigan S, Browne D, Racine N, Mori C, Tough S. Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test. JAMA Pediatr. Published online January 28, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.5056