Researchers say limiting children’s time with electronic devices isn’t easy, but there are ways to do it.

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Children who have too much screen time at age 2 can have learning delays by age 3, researchers say. Getty Images

It may be the easiest way to calm restless or misbehaving kids, but is handing over a phone or tablet doing children long-term harm?

Although the occasional cartoon or video game may not be a problem, a new study finds too much screen time can seriously affect children’s long-term development.

Children are growing up with unprecedented access to electronic devices.

Starting as toddlers, many kids now spend part of every day staring at a screen instead of being physically active or interacting with others.

A study recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) looked at 2,400 typically developing children in Canada. Researchers found that greater amounts of screen time from ages 2 to 3 were associated with significantly poorer performance when their development was assessed at ages 3 and 5.

“Screens have become a significant concern for parents, so we wanted to find out more about how screen time was impacting children’s developmental trajectories,” Sheri Madigan, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Calgary and lead study author, told Healthline.

“We were particularly interested in the long-term impact of screens, which is why we followed children over time, from ages 2 to 5, and repeatedly assessed both screen time and children’s developmental outcomes,” Madigan said.

While not the first study to show that too much time spent staring at a screen can impact children’s development, it’s the first to confirm long-term effects.

“Most of the research on children and screens has been cross-sectional, meaning that associations are based on a particular snapshot in time and don’t reveal if there are lasting influences of screen time on children’s outcomes,” Madigan said.

“In this study, we follow children over time and showed that higher levels of screen time when kids are 2 and 3 years of age predict poorer outcomes when these same children are 3 and 5 years of age, respectively,” she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents of children 1 to 2 years of age shouldn’t exceed one hour of screen time per day. They should also choose high-quality shows and watch them with their children to answer any questions and help them understand what they’re viewing.

“We were surprised that children in our study were viewing screens for two to three hours a day,” Madigan said. “This means that most of the children in our sample are exceeding the recommended guidelines by the AAP of no more than one hour of high-quality programming per day.”

“Quality screen time is possible, but we need to take a look at what our kids are doing with the devices,” Dr. Alex Dimitriu, board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California, told Healthline.

He emphasizes that while certain games and shows may be amusing, parents should regularly ask themselves what value the content has.

“Screen time should at least be an educational experience, not just a shiny distraction,” Dimitriu said.

Weaning children off screen-based entertainment can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.

“Locking devices into specific apps has been hugely beneficial with my own children,” Dimitriu said. “It’s our responsibility as parents to decide if apps and shows are worthwhile. It doesn’t take much to get a child’s attention, but it’s easier when there are fewer choices.”

While the study’s findings suggest excess screen time can be detrimental for children’s development, “what’s the tipping point?” Madigan asked.

“We don’t know that yet. Our suggestion is to treat screen time like we do junk food with kids: A little is OK, but too much is a problem,” she said.

The average cartoon is about 30 minutes long. Tablet- or phone-based games can extend far past that.

That makes it easy to go over the recommended time limit for young children.

But, while the temptation to keep rowdy children quiet using TV and digital devices can be strong, parents need to focus on what’s really important.

“The ultimate value for children is parental attention and the love that ideally comes with it. We’re living in busy modern times, and our attention is often pulled in numerous directions, resulting in less time for parenting,” Dimitriu said. “Ideally, screen time should be replaced with interactive play, arts, crafts, and reading.”

Madigan recommends parents learn more about screen time guidelines for children.

“Families should try to balance technology and screens with device-free family time,” she said. “Media and device plans can help families decide when, where, and how often screens will be used. And parents should make viewing screens together the norm.”

Although previous research demonstrated a link between screen time and poor academic performance, new research confirms long-term adverse effects.

While allowing energetic or unruly children to watch videos or play with electronic devices may calm them down, too much screen time can impact their mental development.

The AAP recommends that children 1 to 2 years of age shouldn’t exceed one hour of screen time per day. Parents should also choose high-quality shows and watch them with their children.

Reduce children’s screen time by encouraging activities such as reading, physical play, arts, and crafts. Children benefit when parents devote more attention to them rather than relying on devices to occupy or calm them down.