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How Much Screen Time Is Too Much for Kids?

Newsweek logo Newsweek 4/17/2019 Kashmira Gander

Kindergartners who use screens for more than two hours a day are more likely to show signs of behavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a study by Canadian scientists.

Existing research suggests preschool age children in Canada use screens for two hours per day. So researchers set out to study the potential negative effects this might have on their development, including attention problems.

The research, published in the journal PLOS One, involved 2,427 children from the cities of Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver, as well as the province of Manitoba, who were taking part in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) study. 

Their parents completed a commonly used questionnaire designed to pick up mental issues when the children were aged 3, and again at age 5. The parents also told researchers how much their children used screens and completed physical activity, and also provided other information such as their socioeconomic status. 

Screen-time included watching more traditional media such as TVs and DVDs, as well as playing video games and using a computer, tablet or mobile phone.

The five-year-old children who took part in the research were found to use screens for 1.4 hours per day on average, while three-year-olds an average of 1.5 hours.

Using this data, the researchers placed the children into four categories according to the Canadian government's guideline that children aged between 5 and 13 should spend no more than two hours using screens, or one hour for two- to four-year-olds.

By age five, 83 percent of the children used screens for less than two hours per day, but 317 interacted with screens for more than the recommended limit.

Compared with children who had screen-time of 30 minutes or less, those whose screen-time reached past the two-hour mark were more likely to have externalizing behavior problems like inattention, even when scientists took into account their socioeconomic status, sleep and stress levels.  This group was also 5.9 times more likely to have issues with paying attention, and 7.7 times more likely to have the symptoms of ADHD. Kids who exercised for more than two hours per week were less likely to experience mental health problems, meanwhile.

a person sitting on a bed © Getty Images

Dr. Sukhpreet K. Tamana, co-author of the study at the department of pediatrics at the University of Alberta, told Newsweek: “We were surprised to find that how much time spent using devices or watching TV had the strongest influence on preschool behavior, when compared to other environmental, home, or movement-behaviors considered in our study.”

However, Tamana acknowledged the study was limited as it didn’t include the type of media used.

The authors argued their paper calls into question whether such technology should be used in classrooms, and suggested future studies should test if reducing the screen-time of children with behavioral problems could ease their symptoms. Researchers exploring this topic should try to find a causal link between screen-time and child development, Tamana said, as the study only shows a correlation. 

Tamana argued: “The study highlights that preschool is an ideal time to promote healthy relationships with screens, and that it’s beneficial for parents to increase opportunities for other structured activities." 

Past studies have linked screen-time to poor eating habits, low-quality sleep, heart disease and obesity in children, the authors noted. Evidence suggests using such devices could cut into the time children need for mental development. One study published earlier this year on children in Canada found children who used screens for more than one hour a day at 24-months had a higher risk of facing developmental problems at 36 months, and 60 months. That work was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. 

“Readers should take away the message that less than 30minutes of screen-time each day is the optimal amount for preschoolers,” argued Tamana.

Dr. Natalia Kucirkova, Professor of Early Childhood and Development at the Norwegian Centre for Learning Environment and Behavioral Research, University of Stavanger, was not involved in the research. She told Newsweek the study was robust and based on a large representative sample from Canada.

However, she pointed out two limitations. She had issue with the fact that only the amount of time was considered in the study, but there was no measure of the types of content or whether the children were supervised by parents or joined by friends. Secondly, parents’ subjective perceptions were used as a measure for a child’s progress, which could skew the results. 

“Many adults perceive children’s and their own performance on screens as inferior and Canadian parents would be aware of the many reports in the popular press about the negative impact of screens on children’s development,” she explained.

She concluded: “The message to take away is one: excessive screen-time is not good; two: effects depend on the content and circumstances of use; three: parents need to act as media mentors and consider how much their child's use, let alone their own use, displaces face-to-face interactions.”

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