Too much early screen time could lead to delays in a child’s later development

A new study has found an association between a one-year-old’s screen time and an increased risk of developmental delays later in childhood, particularly in communication and problem-solving.

The research adds to the existing data about how screen use can affect a child’s future development [12]. When it comes to children, the effect of screen time – the amount of time they spend watching television, playing video games and using mobile phones, tablets and other electronic devices and whether it’s harmful has been well-researched. 

For example, an extensive study of nine- and 10-year-olds using screens for an average of four to five hours a day found that the social nature of screen time strengthened relations between peers [3].

While one study of teens found that increased social media and television screen time was linked to depression, another found that moderate screen use was beneficial to a teenager’s wellbeing [4]. But what is the effect of screen time on very young children? 

In a new study, researchers from Tohoku University in Japan examined whether screen time at age one affected future development, particularly in communication, motor skills, problem-solving, and personal and social skills [5].

The researchers recruited 7,097 mother-child pairs and, using a questionnaire, children’s screen time at age one was assessed. Mothers were asked, “On a typical day, how many hours do you allow your children to watch TV, DVDs, video games, internet games (including mobile phones and tablets), etc.?” 

There were five response categories: none, less than one, one to less than two, two to less than four, or four or more hours a day. When the children were aged two and four, their developmental performance was assessed using the third edition of the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ-3), a developmental and social-emotional screening tool for children between birth and age six.

In terms of screen time exposure per day, the majority (48.5%) of children had less than one hour. Only 4.1% of children had four or more hours per day. 

After adjusting for independent variables, the researchers observed an association between screen time at age one and a higher risk of development delay at age two in the communication, fine motor, problem-solving and personal and social skills domains.

At age four, there was a relationship between early screen watching and a delay in the communication and problem-solving domains, meaning the delay in relation to fine motor, personal and social skills seen at two was no longer seen.

The researchers state the results suggest a dose-response association between longer screen time at age one and developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages two and four. In particular, more than four hours of screen time per day was associated with these delays in both older age groups.

One hypothesis put forward by the researchers to explain this change is that the children’s fine motor, personal and social skills simply ‘caught up’ between the ages of two and four. Alternatively, they hypothesize that it’s a case of ‘reverse causation’; a developmental delay in fine motor, personal and social skills leads to increased screen time.

Further follow-up studies are required to investigate this phenomenon further. Additionally, the researchers say that although screen time was associated with developmental delay, there may be an educational aspect depending on the types of programs viewed.

As noted by the researchers, one of the study’s limitations is that they didn’t separate educational screen time from other types of screen time. The study does note that while the results suggest a relationship between screen time and developmental delay in children, they do not prove that that screen time itself causes developmental delays.

Learn more about this study from JAMA Pediatrics.


Photograph: bondarillia/Envato
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