Preschoolers with too much screen time struggle making friends, have shorter attention spans

HELSINKI, Finland — Technology may help older children and adults connect with the world, but for toddlers, too much screen time may be doing lasting harm before they even enter school. Researchers in Finland find children under five who excessively use video games, mobile phones, and other digital devices are displaying emotional and behavioral issues by the time they reach preschool.

Their study reveals these youngsters suffer from hyperactivity, short attention spans, and poor concentration. Children who spend more than an hour a day watching screens are also less likely to make friends.

The number of preschoolers, or kids between two and five years-old, using mobile phones and tablets tripled between 2013 and 2017. This is raising concerns that too much screen time hinders a child’s development by affecting language and social skills, as well as fostering addictive behavior.

Now, researchers from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare are adding psychological problems to the list of parental worries.

“Our results show that 5-year-old children spend considerably more time on e-media than is recommended by professionals,” says corresponding author Dr. Juulia Paavonen in a media release. “Our results further indicate that high levels of e-media use, especially program viewing, is associated with problems with psychosocial outcomes, while use of electronic games was only associated with hyperactivity in the crude models.”

Screen time only worsens as kids get older

Expert recommend allowing preschools a maximum of 60 minutes of daily screen time. The team tracked data on the health and psychological well-being of 699 children, from before birth (32 weeks into pregnancy) up to age five.

Parents of the 333 girls and 366 boys also recorded how much time their child spent using phones and tablets at 18 months and at five years-old; both during the week and on the weekends. Specifically, study authors tracked how many hours the children spent watching videos on television or other devices. They also measured time spent playing games on a computer, console, mobile phone, or tablet.

At 18 months, toddlers spent on average 32 minutes a day using electronic media. Nearly with one in four did so for more than an hour. By age five however, children spent an average of 114 minutes a day in front of a screen. Two-thirds were spending more than an hour watching TV programs and 11 percent played video games.

The researchers asked parents to complete certified questionnaires, called FTF and SDQ, to assess their five-year-old child’s psychological well-being. In particular, they looked at emotional and behavioral issues, short attention spans, hyperactivity, and their difficulties making and keeping friends.

Are screens isolating children from everyone else?

The results reveal kids who spent too much time looking at screens when they were 18 months-old were 59 percent more likely to struggle with making friends. At five years-old, watching too many videos also heightened the risk of attention and concentration difficulties. Hyperactivity, impulsivity, emotional and behavioral problems also increased.

Too much gaming on the other hand did not show a link to any psychological issues after researchers accounted for other factors. Previous studies have discovered that a child’s healthy development depends on a number of social and environmental factors starting at an early age.

“Although children’s e-media use patterns might not seem problematic when considering use on a daily level, they do have risks in the long term,” Dr. Paavonen adds.

Making sure children do not overdo it when it comes to screen time could help them develop important skills as they get older, the experts conclude.

They note that their findings are only observational and can’t establish a cause for this change in behavior. Despite this, researchers believe the time children spend on electronic devices likely reduces the time they spend interacting with family members, reading, and playing with peers.

The findings appear in the journal BMJ Open.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.