Tablets, smart phones and TVs are a life saver for most parents of young children, but in a new study released this week, experts are saying the developmental damage from too much time spent looking at screens is more severe than previously believed.
With both parents and doctors looking for more information on the effects of screen time on young children and babies, the Hospital For Sick Children and the Canadian Pediatric Society (CPS) conducted a study focused on the amount of time children spend looking at screens and their cognitive and language development. The Hospital For Sick Children used data gathered from parents, who recorded the amount of time their children spent looking at screens every day, and compared this with the baby or young child’s development. Their findings, which were published by the CPS this week, argue that parents should limit or ban screen time all together.
The Hospital for Sick Children found that by 18 months, 22 per cent of children used a mobile device for an average of 28 minutes each day. For children using devices for extended periods of time, every additional 30 minutes added to the risk of delayed language by 49 per cent.
The study suggests that children aged two years old or less should have no screen time, although guidelines out of the US state that video chatting for children in this age range is safe. Dr. Jean -Philippe Chaput of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario says, “I think the main concerns with kids exposed to screens early on are really about their sleep quality, their language, their emotions, their attention, and their cognition.”
The new guidelines suggest that parents limit screen time to less than one hour per day for children between the ages of two and five. As for using screens before bedtime, the guidelines recommend that screens be turned off at least one hour before bed for children of all ages.
These findings are especially troubling for parents who rely on devices to keep their children occupied, especially for parents with multiple young children who aren’t yet old enough to entertain themselves. Devices help busy parents keep their children entertained while they make meals or use the bathroom.
The study doesn’t specify whether there is a difference between time spent looking at screens for entertainment versus using educational apps, but the researchers plan on investigating whether there is a difference in the types of apps children are using.
Pediatrician Dr. Michelle Ponti says that limiting screen time in a child’s early years will help both with their development and their attachment to screens later in life. “We know that early overexposure can lead to overuse later on in life. We know setting limits is easier when you start earlier, and we know that as children get older, beginning at about four, the choice in the material and programming they’re looking at trends towards entertainment than exclusively educational,” says Ponti. Like Dr. Chaput, Dr. Ponti also says that screen time can lead to issues with attention and focus, as well as obesity.
While sticking with the new guidelines may feel impossible for parents who need a digital baby sitter for a few moments each day, they do act as a reminder to limit children’s screen time whenever possible. Experts suggest making a ‘media plan’ by designating screen-free times like during dinner or while in the car, allowing only high-quality educational material, and having frequent conversations with children about online safety.