- A new study found that longer screen time at age 1 was linked to developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 and 4.
- Experts say limiting screen time in infants and young children can support their development.
- Some forms of screen time may be appropriate for children 18 to 24 months.
Letting your baby play with a phone or tablet may seem like a simple way to keep them occupied, but new research shows it could slow their development.
1-year-old infants with longer screen time had a higher risk of developmental delays in communication and problem-solving at ages 2 and 4, according to a study published Aug. 21 in the journal
“This research adds to the evidence that increased screen time [in infants and young children] contributes to developmental delays in areas such as communication skills, problem-solving skills, and social skills,” said Dr. Christina Johns, pediatric emergency doctor and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatric Care, who wasn’t involved in the study.
The study included 7,097 children and their parents, who were recruited from 50 obstetric clinics and hospitals in Japan between 2013 and 2017.
Parents reported how much screen time their 1-year-old child was allowed on a “typical” day, including TV, DVDs, video games, mobile phones, and tablets.
Later, when their child was 2 and 4, parents responded to a questionnaire that assessed their child’s development in several areas — communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem-solving, and personal and social skills.
By age 2, those who spent four or more hours per day with screens were almost two times more likely to experience developmental delays in communication and problem-solving skills.
Those who spent 4 or more hours per day with screens were almost five times more likely to have communication delays and almost three times more likely to have problem-solving delays by age 2.
In addition, those with 4 or more hours per day of screen time were up to twice as likely at age 2 to have delays in fine motor skills and personal and social skills.
By age 4, the increased risk of delays remained only for communication and problem-solving skills.
This study shows that “screen time before age 2 years does affect development in many areas and has more impact on communication and problem-solving skills,” said Dr. Sarah Adams, pediatrician and medical director at Akron Children’s Hospital in Hudson, Ohio.
“This impact continues to be seen at ages 2 and 4 years,” she told Healthline, which “further solidifies the need to follow the screen time guidelines and recommendations for infants and children.”
Factors other than screen time can also affect development, such as genetics, negative experiences such as abuse or neglect, and socioeconomic factors.
In the new study, parents of children with high levels of screen time were more likely to be younger, have never given birth before, have a lower household income, have a lower education level, and have postpartum depression.
One limitation of the study is that researchers didn’t have details on what type of screen time children were exposed to. In addition, they didn’t have data on whether a parent was watching the content with the child.
Some research suggests that not all types of screen time have the same effect on a child’s development.
Screen time remains a top child health concern for parents, with two-thirds worried about their child’s screen use, according to a recent poll by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
Johns recommends that parents follow the American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines “as closely as possible.”
The AAP discourages screen time for children under age two and makes the following recommendations:
- Limit media use as much as possible.
- Have an adult present when using a screen (i.e., when video chatting with loved ones).
- Choose only high quality programming (no earlier than 18 months).
- View media with your child, avoiding solo screen time.
“I encourage parents to delay introducing screens at all to infants and young children,” Johns told Healthline. “Often, once parents start the exposure, it’s hard to stop it. So don’t let the genie out of the bottle in the first place.”
Many parents may find it difficult to keep their child away from screens entirely, but Johns pointed out that the new study found that the impact on development increased with longer screen time. So if parents can’t cut back their child’s screen time to zero, reducing it will still have a positive effect.
In addition, “be intentional about the programming that your child does see,” she said, “and make sure that it is age appropriate and educational.”
The AAP said children 18-24 months of age can learn from high-quality educational media as long as parents play or view with them and reteach the lessons.
“Interact with your child during screen time and talk about what they are experiencing, seeing, reading and hearing,” said Adams.
She said its also important to build a routine for your infant and child that involves other kinds of play and interaction throughout the day, ones that don’t involve screens.
And of course, “be a role model for your children and limit your own screen time,” she said.
Longer screen time at age 1 can have a negative effect on children’s development at ages 2 and 4, especially communication and problem-solving skills.
Experts recommend limiting screen time in children under age 2, even if it means cutting back rather than eliminating it entirely.
Some types of screen time, such as high-quality educational material, may be beneficial for younger children, especially if parents view and teach alongside them.