"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Daily screen time is linked to developmental delays in young children

August 23, 2023 – One-year-olds who spent an hour or more of screen time every day were as much as five times more prone to miss communication skills milestones by age 2, in response to a brand new study from Japan.

While research on screen time so far has shown mixed effects on the event and acquisition of recent skills, including in some cases advantages that relied on what style of programs are viewed, this latest study sought to find out whether specific areas of development are affected by screen time at a young age.

Screen time was defined because the time spent watching television, playing video games, or using mobile phones, tablets or other electronic devices.

The study was published this week within the magazine JAMA Pediatrics. The researchers analyzed data from 7,097 children born in Japan whose moms provided ongoing updates to a database for research purposes. The research program recruited pregnant women between 2013 and 2017 to contribute data about their children.

The researchers analyzed how much time the moms reported their children spent in front of screens every day as one-year-olds and linked this information to the moms' later reports of whether their children had met developmental milestones as two-year-olds. To understand how much time their children spent in front of screens as one-year-olds, moms were asked, “On a typical day, how many hours do you allow your children to watch television, watch DVDs, play video games, Internet games (including cell phones and tablets), etc.?”

When the kids were 2 and 4 years old, the moms were also asked a series of standardized developmental questions called Questionnaire on age and age groups. Some communication questions aimed to find out whether the kid imitates a two-word sentence, e.g., “Mommy, eat,” or whether a baby can point to an actual picture without being shown it, e.g., “Where is the dog?”

The researchers found that when a baby's day by day screen time at one 12 months of age, those that spent an hour or more per day on screens were more prone to have developmental delays in communication skills as two-year-olds than one-year-olds who spent lower than an hour per day on screens.

Specifically, the study showed that 2-year-olds:

  • 61% higher likelihood of developmental delays in communication if children spent 1 to lower than 2 hours a day in front of the screen as one-year-olds
  • Children with 2 to lower than 4 hours of day by day screen time are twice as prone to have a communication delay as one-year-olds.
  • Five times more prone to have a developmental delay in communication in the event that they spend 4 or more hours a day in front of a screen

The study also showed that children who spent an hour or more of screen time day by day as one-year-olds were more prone to miss milestones in advantageous motor skills, personal skills and social skills as two-year-olds. However, as four-year-olds, the kids weren't more prone to miss milestones in these areas.

The authors noted that limiting screen time is difficult in the trendy world. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages children under 18 months of age from using screen time apart from video chatting.

“There is sufficient evidence to recommend limiting digital media use for children ages 2 to 5 to no more than one hour per day to give children sufficient time for other activities important to their health and development and to establish media use habits associated with a lower risk of obesity later in life,” the AAP’s guideline states. Media and young minds it says. “In addition, encouraging parents to switch to educational and prosocial content and to engage with their children about technology will help children get the most out of what they see.”

According to the AAP, children as young as 15 months can learn words from touchscreens but have trouble transferring that knowledge to the true world. Two-year-olds can learn words through live video chats with a responsive adult, the AAP reports.

“The most important factor in helping young children learn from commercial media (starting at about 15 months of age) is parents watching the media with them and reteaching the content,” advises the AAP.