Recommended: No screen time for toddlers
A new study published in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics surveyed 2,441 mothers in Canada on how much time their kids watched TV or movies, played or watched video games, and used computers and cell phones. Researchers also sent questionnaires to the mothers about the developmental milestones of their children.
The study found a direct association between screen time at ages 2 and 3 and development at 3 and 5. Researchers looked at growth in motor skills, problem-solving, and personal, social and communication skills.
Studies have shown that most children of all ages exceed the screen time recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics of not more than one hour a day for children from 2 to 5 years old. Researchers from the University of Calgary found that children, on average, had 2.4 hours of screen time at 2 years old, 3.6 hours at 3 years old, and 1.6 hours at 5 years old.
Since brain growth is fastest from the newborn months to about 3 years old, it is extremely important that there should be no screen time in younger children, or limited to not more than one hour a day, because it can affect cognitive and behavioral development.
Children whose screen time is longer than the recommended time limit develop delays in language and communication, problem-solving, fine and gross motor skills. That is because “screen time is most often a sedentary or passive behavior, with very few learning opportunities,” said the University of Calgary study’s lead author, Sheri Madrigan.
The brain of a toddler is also not yet developed enough to apply the events and things the child sees from a two-dimensional screen to what he or she does in the real three-dimensional life.
Another reason screen time can delay child development is that the long hours used in front of a television, tablet, computer and cell phone mean children may miss out on chances to draw with crayons, play with clay, construct with Legos and participate in games with adults or other kids that help them improve motor and cognitive skills.
One expert, Dr. Marla Shapiro, suggested that families should sit down and ask and think about screen time in the family and consider:
Is your family screen time under control?
Does screen time use interfere with what your family wants to do?
Is screen time interfering with your child’s sleep?
Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
Because the number of obese children is increasing, the last question has also become important to talk about.
For families whose children are already screen-dependent, the kids can still be helped away from the habit because their brains are actively growing and malleable. But parents need to reduce their screen time, too, and use it only for important tasks. Parents are the best model for their children.
The guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics on media viewing (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx) make for useful reading.
Parents of children who go over the screen time limit should make sure their kids are getting enough sleeping time, adequate physical exercise and plenty of positive face-to-face interaction with the people around them—parents, grandparents, caregivers.
Parents should also select the movies, video or apps their children are watching. Age-appropriate content is preferred, and it is better watched with parents by their children’s side.
The most ideal situation to reduce or prevent toddlers from using high-tech gadgets is for parents, grandparents and babysitters to use these devices only when out of sight of infants and young children.
Leonardo Leonidas, MD, is assistant clinical professor in pediatrics (retired) at the Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston.
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