Children Glued to Screens Show Alarming Developmental Delays

Public Domain. MaxPixel

A new study emphasizes the importance of minimizing young children's exposure to screens.

One in four children starting school in Canada is not developmentally prepared for it. They show delays in language, communication, motor skills, and emotional resilience, which makes it challenging for them to cope with the academic requirements. If developmental gaps are not addressed early on, they tend to widen with age, which places a burden on the school system to offer specialized support for these children.

The question of why such a high percentage of children are delayed should be front and foremost in any discussion about this issue. Of course every child will have different factors contributing to his or her unique situation, but researchers at the University of Calgary have found a common thread – and it's one that might be upsetting to many parents today.

In an open-access study of over 2,400 children, just published in JAMA Pediatrics, Professor Sheri Madigan and her colleagues found that the more time young children spend glued to screens, the worse their score on tests of cognitive and emotional development (the widely-used 'Ages and Stages Questionnaire,' or ASQ-3).

But this leads to the question of what comes first – delays in development or excessive screen time viewing? Kids with developmental delays might be more likely to spend time in front of a screen than those who are not delayed. Madigan explored further and found that the opposite is not true:

"Results suggest that screen time is likely the initial factor: greater screen time at 24 months was associated with poorer performance on developmental screening tests at 36 months, and similarly, greater screen time at 36 months was associated with lower scores on developmental screening tests at 60 months. The obverse association was not observed."

This is troubling because child development is rapid and crucial in the first five years, and screens – a mostly avoidable factor – are clearly undermining it. Screens hinder a child's ability to develop normally. They disrupt conversations with caregivers and siblings, causing the child to miss out on verbal and non-verbal social exchanges. They cause a child to be more sedentary and miss out on motor skill development.

parent showing phone to kid

César – Not much communication going on here/CC BY 2.0

The study authors urge medical professionals to take a stronger stance on media use for young children. First, they should discourage its use and emphasize the need for moderation. Second, they should help families create individualized media plans that "balance and allocate time for online and offline activities to ensure that physical activity and family interactions are prioritized."

It seems that every week there's yet more evidence that screens and kids are a bad combination. This isn't something to mess around with. Parents need to take action, limit exposure, and give their kid the best chance at succeeding in life, even if it isn't as convenient as handing over an iPad. Pay attention to studies like this and your kid will thank you someday.