Excessive screen time for toddlers linked to less physical activity, stunted development

SINGAPORE — As the world continues to advance, technology is becoming a bigger part of every child’s development. Playing on various digital devices for too long, however, can be just as bad for kids as it is for adults. A recent study says excessive screen time may stunt a child’s growth, especially if they start using devices around age two or three.

Researchers in Singapore examined over 500 children. Their findings lead them to recommend parents follow World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, which advise limiting a child’s screen time to one hour per day. This amount should be even less for children younger than five.

Tracking the many forms of screen time

Study authors say screen time tends to replace time children usually spend sleeping or engaging in physical activity. This can lead to a variety of health problems, including high risk of obesity and lower mental development.

Until this report, researchers say most studies focus on school-aged children and adolescents, producing mixed results.

“We sought to determine whether screen viewing habits at age two to three affected how children spent their time at age five. In particular we were interested in whether screen viewing affected sleep patterns and activity levels later in childhood,” researcher Falk Müller-Riemenschneider explains in a media release.

Parents were asked to report on their children’s screen time at age two and again one year later. Activities like playing video games, watching TV, and using a tablet or phone were all included in the results.

When the children turned five, they continuously wore an activity tracker for seven days. That tracker monitors sleep, time spent sitting, and how much light-to-strenuous physical activity the youngsters get.

How do youngsters spend their time?

On average, the average child watches 2.5 hours of television. TV is the most used device. Children spending at least three hours a day in front of a screen are also spending an average of 40 more minutes sitting down compared to more active five year-olds.

The results also reveal children at age five are also less active if they’ve been using devices too much early on. Those youths are getting about 30 minutes less light activity each day and 10 minutes less vigorous exercise as well.

“Our findings support public health efforts to reduce screen viewing time in young children,” Bozhi Chen from the National University of Singapore says.

Sleep habits do not seem to be heavily affected by too much screen usage.

Room for improvement

Researchers note the results also need to take into account biases by the parents. They believe some adults may leave out information on their child’s diet, sleep patterns, and environmental factors such as childcare.

Dr. Dorothea Dumuid of the University of South Australia, who is not a part of the study, argues the findings aren’t enough to definitively link screen time with reduced physical activity.

“In this rapidly evolving digital age, children’s screen use is a key concern for parents and medical bodies. Guidelines to limit screen time have been released by many governments and WHO, however, screens offer digital and social connectedness and educational opportunities,” she says. “Future research is needed to assess the influence of media content, to determine optimum durations of screen time.”

Chen and the team from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health say more studies are necessary to determine the long-term health effects of the growing digital influence on kids.

The study is published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal.

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