Development delays observed in children could be linked to the amount of screen time they are exposed to in early childhood. The new finding by researchers at Tohoku University in Japan followed analysis of more than 7,000 mother-child pairs participating in a cohort study conducted over three generations.

Each child’s screen time exposure was assessed using parental questionnaires, covering viewing of all visual displays, including televisions, video game displays, tablets, mobile phones and other electronic devices.

The children in the study were almost evenly split between boys (51.8%) and girls (48.2%). Their screen time exposure was assigned to four categories: less than one hour (48.5% of subjects), from one to less than two hours (29.5%), from two to less than four hours (17.9%), and four or more hours (4.1%).

The children’s development was assessed at two and four years of age in the five skill domains of, communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem solving, and personal and social skills. Previous studies conducted on similar topics had not broken down development into different domains, therefore offering a less refined view.

The association between screen time at age one and later developmental delay was assessed using an established statistical technique, revealing a dose-response association — which means that the level of developmental delay (the response) was correlated to the amount (dose) of screen time.

The study found that for children aged two, increased screen time when aged one was associated with developmental delays in all domains except in gross motor skills. However, by the age of four, increased screen time was associated with developmental delays in only the communication and problem-solving domains.

The study surmised that the differing levels of developmental delays in the domains, and the absence of any detected delay in some of them at each stage of life examined, suggests that the domains should be considered separately in future discussions on this subject.

The researchers said that one of the reasons for undertaking the study was recent evidence published by the World Health Organization that too many children were spending too much time in front of digital displays, rather than engaging in physical activities outdoors or in social interactions.

According to pediatricians and social researchers side effects of too much screen time include: spending less time engaged in physical activities outdoors, sleeping problems, having a narrower scope of interests, lower grades in schools, weight and image problems, as well as mood or attention disorders.

The rapid proliferation of digital display devices has significantly increased the time that children and adolescents spend in front of these screens. The study, which suggests an association, not causation, between screen time and developmental delays, does not recommend a complete stoppage of screen time for children.

Given the proliferation of digital displays in today’s world it is inevitable that children will be exposed to screen time no matter how restrictive parents are. Instead, the emphasis should be on limiting this exposure and in ensuring the viewed content is age-appropriate.

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