If your preschooler is already hooked to their iPad or television, scientists say it might be time to start thinking about safe screen time practices. A new study shows more time in front of the tube could be linked to significant behavioral problems.
The Canadian study looked at more than 2,400 families and found that children exposed to two or more hours of screen time per day were five times more likely to have behavioral problems than children who had less than 30 minutes per day.
“Prior to this, there wasn't a lot of data out there that asked the questions, ‘How much is too much? Are the guidelines appropriate? Ultimately, will limiting screen time in preschool years have benefits for a child’s development?’", says the study's first author Sukhpreet Tamana of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta. "This study gives parents some of those answers".
Researchers used data from the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development study to come to their conclusions. Screen-time was assessed at three and five-years-old, with parents reporting any time their child spent watching TV and DVD's, on computers, or using gaming and mobile devices.
On average, they found three-year-old children got about an hour and a half of screen time per day. That meant for 42 percent of three-year-olds, their viewing time exceeded the Canadian guideline of less than one hour of screen time per day. Five-year-olds actually averaged slightly less, 1.4 hours of screen time per day. Canadian guidelines recommend less than two hours a day for five-year-olds, so only 13 percent were found to exceed that guideline.
But researchers say, that doesn't mean those children are in the clear. The study's lead author, Piush Mandhan of the Department of Pediatrics in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of
Medicine and Dentistry, says “We found that screen time had a significant impact at five years of age. Current Canadian guidelines call for no more than two hours of screen time a day at that age. But our research suggests that less screen time is even better.”
In fact, the World Health Organization released it's first ever screen-time guidelines this week. Experts there say children should not be exposed to screen time at all until they're two years old. Children aged two to four should be limited to one hour a day. WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says "early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains." He adds, "achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people's lives."
At five-years-old, the Canadian study had parents assess their child's behavior and attention by completing the Child Behavior Checklist. It's a screening measure to check for a number of problems including anxiety, depression, emotional reactivity, inattention, aggressiveness, and sleep disturbances. Researchers found children who were exposed to more than two hours of screen time per day were five times more likely to exhibit clinically significant “externalizing” behavioral problems such as inattention, compared with children who had less than 30 minutes per day of screen time. Children with more than two hours of screen time were also more than seven times more likely to meet the criteria for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“The two big takeaways from this study are that children exposed to more screen time, at either age three or five years, showed significantly greater behavioral and attention problems at age five, and that this association was greater than any other risk factor we assessed, including sleep, parenting stress, and socioeconomic factors,” said Tamana.
With that in mind, researchers also worked on figuring out what may help counteract the negative effects of screen time. They found good quality sleep had a small impact, but participation in organized sports really made a big difference.
“Interestingly, it wasn’t physical activity on its own that was protective; the activity needed to have structure,” said Mandhane. “And the more time children spent doing organized sports, the
less likely they were to exhibit behavioral problems.” Tamana agreed with her colleague, noting “A lot of the things that you do through organized activities are really important for young kids early on. It sets the stage for development amongst children. I think in lieu of screen time, it would be beneficial for parents to increase opportunities for other structured activities instead.”
That doesn't mean parents need to eliminate screen-time all together. Instead, researchers say stick to a "less is more" approach. “Our data suggests that between zero and 30 minutes a day is the optimal amount of screen time,” said Mandhane. “The preschool period is an ideal time for education on healthy relationships with screens, and we believe our data shows that you can't start too early."
Kim Lucey is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in the field. Her career has included coverage of big breaking news events like the Sandy Hook school shooting, lockdown in Watertown, MA following the Boston marathon bombings, and Superstorm Sandy. Her in-depth reports have garnered awards, including a focus on treating mental health issues in children. Currently, she is a reporter at a television station covering the news across the Greater Boston Area with an appreciation for fact-finding and storytelling. Follow Kim on Facebook and Twitter.