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Screen Time Linked to Developmental Delay in Toddlers

New research suggests that one-year-olds exposed to more screen time may have a higher chance of experiencing a developmental delay at ages two and four.

Parents who allow their babies to spend time on TVs, phones, tablets, and other devices may want to rethink this idea, as a new study suggests excessive screen time might not benefit a child's cognitive development.

Previous studies suggest that prolonged screen time during infancy may lead to poorer brain function in childhood, and kids who spend too much time watching screens may have an increased risk of depression and anxiety when they reach adolescence.

Now, new research published on August 21 in JAMA Pediatrics has found links between screen time use in one-year-olds and developmental delays at the ages of two and four.

The study included 7,097 children and their parents from Japan recruited at 50 obstetric clinics and hospitals during pregnancy between July 2013 and March 2017.

The scientists recorded the screen time exposure of the young participants at one year of age through a parent questionnaire. Then, they assessed the presence of developmental delays at ages two and four using the Japanese version of the Ages & Stages Questionnaires, Third Edition.

The team found that at one year of age, 51.8% of the children had less than one hour of screen time, 29.5% had 1 to less than 2 hours, 17.9% had 2 to less than 4 hours, and 4.1% had 4 or more hours of screen time.

When the children reached two and four years old, developmental delay assessments showed that screen time at one year was associated with developmental delays in communication, gross motor and fine motor skills, problem-solving, and personal and social skills.

Specifically, at the age of two, compared to youngsters with less than one hour of screen time per day, children who had four or more hours of screen time daily were:

  • Almost five times more likely to have communication delays
  • Nearly three times more apt to have delays in problem-solving skills
  • Two times more likely to have personal and social skills delays
  • Close to two times more likely to experience a fine motor skill delay
  • One and a half times more prone to have delays in gross motor skills

In four-year-olds, compared to those who received less than one hour of screen time, those with four or more hours watching devices daily were close to three times more likely to have communication skill delays and nearly two times more likely to experience developmental delays in problem-solving skills.

However, in four-year-olds, other domains, including personal and social skills and fine and gross motor skills, were not impacted by screen time at age one.

Still, the study authors say although more screen time may have a negative impact on development, educational programs may have the opposite effect, citing a previous study that found screen time spent on educational content was linked to an increase in language skills.

"Because it is difficult to limit screen time in general in today's world of electronic devices, it may be beneficial to identify and limit the screen time aspects that are associated with developmental delays while taking advantage of the educational aspects," the authors wrote.

Moreover, parents interested in reducing the time their children spend on devices can implement screen time intervention strategies to modify their child's screen habits.

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