Screens are not babysitters: Infants using digital devices prone to developmental delays

SENDAI, Japan — Not all that dissimilar to many adults, babies today are usually more than happy to sit down in front of a colorful, bright screen. For moms and dads all over, it can be tempting to leave the kids in front of the TV or a smartphone for a few minutes (or hours) to catch a break. New research out of Japan, however, suggests that leaving one-year-old babies in front of a screen may jeopardize the child’s development.

Scientists at Tohoku University, in collaboration with the Hamamatsu University School of Medicine, report that the amount of time a one-year-old baby spends staring at a screen is associated with developmental delays. Researchers examined a total of 7,097 mother-child pairs participating in the Tohoku Medical Megabank Project Birth and Three-Generation Cohort Study to reach these findings. They assessed every child’s personal screen time exposure using parental questionnaires that covered TV viewing, video game displays, tablets, mobile phones, and any other electronic device with a visual display.

The children were almost evenly split between boys (51.8%) and girls (48.2%). Study authors separated the children into four different categories depending on their screen time exposure, including less than one hour (48.5%), 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%).

Each child’s development, meanwhile, was tracked at ages two and four across the five areas of communication, gross motor, fine motor, problem-solving, and personal and social skills. Earlier studies usually never ventured into breaking down different developmental domains, so the team behind this study believes their work offers the most refined view on this topic to date.

The team analyzed the association between screen time at age one and later developmental delay using an established statistical technique, ultimately revealing a dose-response association. In other words, this means that the level of developmental delay (the response) had a connection to the amount (or dose) of screen time.

Young children wearing glasses while looking at smartphone, tablet screens
(© Africa Studio – stock.adobe.com)

For two-year-olds, increased screen time at around the age of one was displayed a link with developmental delays in all domains besides gross motor skills. By the age of four, increased screen time was associated with developmental delays in only two areas (communication and problem-solving).

“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 of the association between screen time and child development,” says Tohoku epidemiologist Taku Obara, corresponding author of the research article, in a university release.

One reason the research team chose to perform this study was a piece of recent evidence published by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, suggesting that just a fraction of children are currently meeting the guidelines for limiting screen time exposure. Those guidelines were designed to help promote sufficient physical activity and social interaction among children.

“The rapid proliferation of digital devices, alongside the impact of the COVID pandemic, has markedly increased screen time for children and adolescents, but this study does not simply suggest a recommendation for restricting screen time. This study suggests an association, not causation between screen time and developmental delay,” Obara concludes. “We use the term ‘delay’ in accordance with previous research, but it is debatable whether this difference in development is really a ‘delay’ or not. We would like to gain deeper insight in future studies by examining the effects of different types of screen exposure.”

The study is published in JAMA Pediatrics.

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