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In this day and age, authorities and research bodies have found the need to advise parents and caregivers on the amount of online media consumption that children should be exposed to on a regular basis. Some of these organizations assert that prolonged screen-time has negative effects on child development, and may even promote internet “addiction” in later life. However, researchers counter this with arguments that there is little empirical evidence to back up these claims and the recommended limits released as a result. A recent article in the journal Child Development has found that one example of these limits was not associated with any particular benefit for a number of child well-being or psychological development.

Some bodies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have taken it upon themselves to release guidelines for the screen-time (defined the amount of time spent consuming media on TVs, laptops or other similar devices, as well as playing games or conducting other activities using these electronics) children should be exposed to at different ages. For example, they suggest that children of two to five years should be allowed one to two hours of screen-time a day at most. These recommendations are intended to manage risks of damage to child development; in other words, organizations such as the AAP worry that too much screen-time will damage caregiver-child relationships, one’s psychological makeup during childhood, or a child’s essential interest in the ‘real’ world around them.

The Canadian Pediatric Society also published an article in October 2017 (published in Pediatrics and Child Health) that also advised setting limits on the screen time – and also the exposure to “digital media”, or the media available on the Internet – for children under five. They based this recommendation on some findings that suggest TV viewed in the relevant years of life are absorbed by the children who watch it to some degree. They also cited two studies that alleged a link between screen use in small children and a risk of screen-time abuse in later life. The CPS’s own survey also found that the average Canadian 3- to 5-year old spends about 2 hours in front of a screen, which exceeds existing Canadian non-active behavior guidelines. The nature of the content also shifts from educational content to entertainment, according to this study. This article also concluded that screen-time may be harmful to attentional and cognitive development in children, albeit only in very high volumes (i.e. seven or more hours per day).

Childhood connected to technology.

Childhood connected to technology. (Public Domain)

The CPS’s article also cited studies that claimed links between impaired executive functions and media with fast-paced or violent content, and some that drew associations between prolonged screen-time and reduced language development, memory formation or skills in math or reading. On the other hand, the CPS did not outline how the authors of said papers consolidated their claims. Nevertheless, they may result in valid concerns for parents. However, child-development researchers such as Netta Weinstein from Cardiff University and Andrew Przybylski from Oxford assert that there is little evidence to support the basis for such guidelines.

For example, there is also some evidence that digital tools such as e-books may benefit literacy in children, and that quality, educational TV tailored to the relevant age-range may boost some areas of cognition as well as positive aspects of social development in young children. In addition, interactive content may also be beneficial for children, although this may depend on active re-enforcement on the part of caregivers. Weinstein and Przybylski’s latest article, published in December 2017, reported the results of a survey administered to parents of children between 2 and 5 years of age. This interview included items that rated psychological aspects such as positive affect, curiosity, parental attachments and resilience in the children. The authors reported that the results did not support a beneficial effect of AAP-defined screen-time limits on these factors.

This study may also give weight to prior findings suggesting that moderate screen use is actually beneficial to the psychological well-being of adolescents. The article also reported that screen-time durations during childhood is affected by a number of factors, which include male gender, parental socioeconomic and educational status and ethnicity. The authors also assert that the AAP’s guidelines are based on data gathered before screens, particularly those on increasingly portable devices, became a normalized facet of life at all ages. However, it should be noted that the majority of the studies cited in the CSP’s paper were conducted in the 2010s.

Full-screen electronics are becoming a more acceptable part of childhood as the 2010s wear on. Research has found that 80% of American children consumed media on portable devices in 2013, compared to 39% in 2011. 51% of British babies aged 6 to 11 months were found to have access to a touchscreen on a regular basis in 2016. Screen-time durations may be an issue for most parents. However, more research that offers more concrete results on its effects in childhood is necessary. At the moment, it seems that screen exposure in high regular doses is related to risks for child development and mental health. The most recent research on the subject also suggests content that is high-quality, age-appropriate and interactive may be beneficial for the educational capacities of the children who watch it. All in all, pediatric health authorities may have to move with the times to ensure that their guidelines are keeping step with the positive aspects of screen use in modern-day children.

Top image: Cash Coins. (Public Domain)

References

Przybylski AK, Weinstein N. Digital Screen Time Limits and Young Children's Psychological Well-Being: Evidence From a Population-Based Study. Child Development.n/a-n/a.

CPS. Screen time and young children: Promoting health and development in a digital world. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2017;22(8):461-8.

Ox.ac.uk. Children’s screen-time guidelines too restrictive, according to new research. Oxford News & Events. 2017. Available at: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-12-14-children%E2%80%99s-screen-time-guidelines-too-restrictive-according-new-research

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Deirdre O’Donnell

Deirdre O’Donnell received her MSc. from the National University of Ireland, Galway in 2007. She has been a professional writer for several years. Deirdre is also an experienced journalist and editor with particular expertise in writing on many areas of medical science. She is also interested in the latest technology, gadgets and innovations.Read More

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