Painfully Obvious Study Highlights The Real Damage Screens Do

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A new study has found that excessive screen time hurts kids’ development, because they’re watching shows instead of living life

Another study has come out that links excessive screen time with missed developmental milestones in young kids. And researchers believe that the link has a lot to do with “missed opportunity” – the fact that while kids are staring at screens, they aren’t doing other important childhood things like playing, learning, socializing, and working on motor skills.

The screen time study, which was published today in JAMA Pediatrics, followed 2,500 kids ages 2-5 living in Alberta, Canada, from 2011 to 2016. The caregivers of the children monitored and reported their screen time, and each child was evaluated using an Ages and Stages questionnaire at ages two, three, and five. The questionnaire covers topics related to developmental milestones.

The study found that the average two-year-old watched television, tablets, phones, and video games for 2.4 hours a day, the average three-year-old watched 3.6 hours a day and the average five-year-old watched 1.6 hours a day – all more than the recommended time of no more than an hour.

And the more that a kid watched, the more their development was harmed, when it came to communication skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social skills, and emotional skills.

“What these findings tell us is that one reason there may be disparities in learning and behavior at school entry is because some kids are in front of screens far too often in early childhood, lead author Sheri Madigan, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary told Today’s Parent.

Madigan stressed that the study corrected for parents who might put kids in front of screens more because they were delayed and had more challenging behaviors. It also corrected for other differences that might affect the results, such as gender, family income, parental education, and use of daycare.

She said that the likely cause of the developmental gap is missed opportunity.

“If kids are in front of screens, there are a lot of missed opportunities for learning,” she said. “You’re watching a screen, so you’re not learning how to ride a bike, or throw a ball, or print your name, or you’re not interacting with your caregiver, which, when positive, can be really important for helping kids thrive.”

While there’s no way to definitively prove that this is the case, “We know that there’s a link there, what we need to do is really try and figure out what’s happening that’s creating these associations. The how. And missed opportunity (sitting in front of a screen instead of drawing, building with Lego or playing outside) is probably a really critical piece of that puzzle,” said Madigan.

There are a few other things to consider: a little screen time isn’t harmful, especially if you’re choosing educational fare for your kids. And getting in those lived experiences, like playing outside, interacting with caregivers, reading, and creating, is probably more important than being extremely strict with screens, but enriching your kids when you can.

Madigan, like so many other experts, recommends having a “media plan” – rules your family can follow to limit screen time and maximize lived experiences. Since screens are in 99 percent of kids’ homes, according to the study, learning to live with them in a healthy way makes a lot more sense than banning them completely.