There has been a recent surge in research examining the impacts of screen time on children and adolescents amid rising concerns that too much time in front of smartphones and constant access to social media is disrupting development and increases the risk of behavior, mental, and mood disorders.
Conflicting results make it difficult to come to a consensus of whether screen time is linked to behavioral and developmental problems in children and teens. But now, a new study has found that for preschoolers, two more hours of screen time is connected to attention problems.
Researchers from the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry reviewed data from Canada’s national CHILD Cohort Study which included information on health, lifestyle, environment and genetic risk factors for 3,500 children and their families.
The CHILD study followed the children from birth to adolescence, and parents also answered questions on daily screen time and completed behavior screenings to assess anxiety, depression, inattention, and sleep disturbances.
Overall, three-year-olds spent 1.5 hours a day watching TV or movies, playing games on a tablet or phone, or spending time on a computer. When the children were five, 1.4 hours a day were spent in front of screens.
Children who had more than two hours of screen time each day were five times more likely to exhibit major behavioral problems and were seven times more likely to show signs of 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 behavioural 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 Sukhpreet Tamana, the first author of the study.
The researchers found that participating in organized sports or having an outlet involving structured activity and getting enough sleep helped buffer against the negative impacts of too much screen time.
“A lot of the things that you do through organized activities are really important for young kids early on,” said Tamana. “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.”
The researchers detailed their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.