Screens have become ubiquitous. And not just the one on the television. The screens of mobile phones, tablets and computers are everywhere. They have become so common that even small children use them. Digital natives is the term used to refer to those who were born surrounded by technology. However, parents should be aware of the effects of screens on children, especially at an early age.
Toddlers exceed recommended screen time
It was still in 1999 when the American Academy of Pediatrics set the first guidelines for screen time for children. At the time, they recommended that pediatricians advise parents to prevent children under 2 years of age from watching television. In 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its recommendation that children ages 2 to 5 should spend no more than 1 to 2 hours per day in front of screens.
Later, the World Health Organization endorsed those recommendations with the aim of ensuring that children can get the physical activity they need and get enough sleep to protect their well-being and that they can grow healthily.
However, either because parents are unaware of the effects of screens on children, because they have become ubiquitous or simply because day-to-day exhaustion wins the game, the truth is that children use much more of what they should the electronic devices.
Currently, 75.3% of children under 2 years of age are exposed to screens every day and 64.4% of children between 2 and 5 years of age spend more than an hour looking at them, be it the screen of the television, mobile phones or other digital devices, according to research carried out at the University of Calgary.
Screens at an early age hinder child development
Researchers at Tohoku University School of Medicine have found that spending two or more hours a day in front of screens can increase the chances of young children experiencing developmental delay between the ages of 2 and 4.
The study was based on data from 7,097 children, who were followed from birth to 4 years of age. The researchers looked at the main areas of child development: communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal and social skills.
They found that as screen time increased, so did the likelihood of developmental delays, especially in problem-solving and communication skills.
For example, children who spent up to 2 hours per day in front of a screen at the age of 1 year, were 61% more likely to have a delay in the development of communication skills at age 2 than those who spent less than an hour a day in front of screens.
The risk skyrocketed as screen time increased: it was almost five times higher for children who spent four or more hours a day in front of a screen. The researchers found delays not only related to communication and social skills, but also in motor skills related to arm, body, leg, hand, and finger movements.
Babies need people, not screens
On a curious note, these researchers found that there were no differences between educational time and other types of screen activities, which means that at such early ages in life, the excuse that children are learning with electronic devices is not valid since at that stage of their development they have other needs.
In fact, child health experts generally recommend limiting screen time as much as possible, and instead, are encouraging physical activity and face-to-face interactions. “Babies need humans, not screens,” as Unicef points out.
Screen time prevents young children from developing the ability to “read” faces and respond accordingly, essential for developing empathy. Until babies learn to talk, all their communication is non-verbal, so they rely heavily on looking at their parents’ faces and understanding their meaning. This way they can understand if they are upset, happy or scared.
This interaction between children and their parents or caregivers is critical for brain development, as well as for acquiring the social and communication skills they will need in life. If face-to-face opportunities decrease, children will have a harder time understanding and interpreting nonverbal cues. That means exposure to screens reduces babies’ ability to read human emotions.
The effects of screens on young children are not limited to reducing their social skills, but also extend to their motor development. Being a fundamentally passive activity, screens become a barrier to movement, delaying the acquisition of essential motor skills.
Obviously, it is not about demonizing screens and technological devices, but it is necessary to control children’s exposure to them to guarantee quality stimulation precisely in the years in which their brain is most receptive and in full development. The benefits of limiting screen time during those early years could last a lifetime.
Takahashi, I. et. Al. (2023) Screen Time at Age 1 Year and Communication and Problem-Solving Developmental Delay at 2 and 4 Years. JAMA Pediatr; 10.1001.
McArthur, B. A. et. Al. (2022) Global Prevalence of Meeting Screen Time Guidelines Among Children 5 Years and Younger. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Pediatr; 176(4): 373-383.