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Study Finds Link Between Screen Time and Developmental Delays in Toddlerhood

A study published in the JAMA Pediatrics journal has highlighted the detrimental effects of giving babies phones or tablets as distractions, indicating that infants aged 1 who have 1-4 hours of daily screen time may experience developmental delays in areas such as communication, fine motor skills, problem-solving, and personal-social skills by age 2. The study, involving 7,097 children and conducted as part of the Tohoku Medical Megabank Project Birth and Three-Generation Cohort Study in Japan, underscores the potential risks of excessive screen time during early childhood.

Dr. Jason Nagata, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, praised the study’s substantial sample size and follow-up duration, highlighting its identification of specific developmental delays connected to screen time. Children exposed to up to four hours of daily screen time by age 2 were up to three times more likely to experience developmental delays in communication and problem-solving skills. Those with over four hours were nearly five times more likely to have underdeveloped communication skills and twice as likely to exhibit inadequate personal-social skills and subpar fine motor skills by age 2. Elevated risks persisted in communication and problem-solving areas by age 4.

Dr. John Hutton, an associate professor of general and community pediatrics, noted the lack of research on screen exposure’s impact on young children, especially babies, and suggested that the findings could have global relevance. The potential negative effects on communication skills arise from limited dialogue opportunities, hindering language development. Additionally, screen use could undermine essential real-life interpersonal interactions crucial for nurturing social skills.

Passive screen viewing without interactive or physical components may contribute to sedentary behavior, hampering motor skill development. Using screens to pacify children might impede their ability to handle discomfort constructively. The study acknowledged other factors influencing child development, including genetics, adverse experiences, and socioeconomic circumstances.

Mothers of children with high screen time were more likely to be younger, first-time mothers with lower income, education, and higher rates of postpartum depression. The study’s limitations included potential parental reporting bias regarding screen time and developmental progress.

To provide healthier alternatives for keeping toddlers engaged, experts recommend offering books, coloring materials, toys, or educational content. If screen time is necessary, opt for educational content or video chats to facilitate social interaction. However, some online educational content may focus on rote memorization instead of practical knowledge application, which is more beneficial for real-world navigation.

Experts advise selecting longer videos over shorter clips to maintain attention and comprehension. They also stress being mindful of when screen time is used and suggest turning devices off when not in use. Parents should set an example by managing their own screen time, as children tend to mimic their behavior.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests evaluating screen time quality rather than just quantity and offers resources like a family media plan to establish healthy guidelines. In conclusion, the study underscores the risks of excessive screen time during early childhood, advocating for meaningful engagement and limited passive screen exposure to promote optimal child development.