The simple way to reverse negative impacts of screen time on young kids

SUITA, Japan — As today’s youngsters grow up in the most technology-driven society ever, it’s normal for parents to worry about the amount of screen time their kids are getting on a daily basis. New research from Japan validates this concern, showing that more screen time at age two leads to poorer communication and daily living skills by age four. However, researchers say if children play outdoors, it can mitigate these effects.

“Although both communication and daily living skills were worse in 4-year-old children who had had more screen time at aged 2, outdoor play time had very different effects on these two neurodevelopmental outcomes,” explains study lead author Kenji J. Tsuchiya, a professor at Osaka University, in a media release. “We were surprised to find that outdoor play didn’t really alter the negative effects of screen time on communication—but it did have an effect on daily living skills.”

Researchers came to these findings after following 885 children, from 18 months to four years-old. They examined the relationship between a child’s average amount of screen time per day at age two, the amount of outdoor play at two years and eight months, and neurodevelopmental outcomes like communication, daily living, and socialization skills at age four, according to a standardized assessment tool called the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale-II.

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They found that outdoor play time could reduce the harmful effects of screen time on daily living skills by 20 percent. Further, the researchers found that socialization skills improved among four-year-olds who spent more time outside at the age of two years and eight months.

“Taken together, our findings indicate that optimizing screen time in young children is really important for appropriate neurodevelopment,” says Tomoko Nishimura, senior author of the study. “We also found that screen time is not related to social outcomes, and that even if screen time is relatively high, encouraging more outdoor play time might help to keep kids healthy and developing appropriately.”

It’s no secret that COVID-19 pushed many around the world to depend on digital devices more. This was especially true for children. Between school and free time, young children were more likely to use screens for a variety of reasons, including entertainment. There were months where families worldwide were staying in their homes unless absolutely necessary, which disrupted many children used to going to school in-person and playing outdoors with friends. Since it remains difficult to limit screen time in young kids, further research is necessary to better understand the risks and benefits of using digital technology.

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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