Jan. 28, 2019

Excessive screen time linked to preschool learning delays

Many children start school inadequately prepared to learn; electronic devices a factor, according to UCalgary study
University of Calgary researcher Sheri Madigan and co-authors of the study recommend that families create a family media plan to help limit screen time and encourage interaction with others. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
University of Calgary researcher Sheri Madigan and co-authors of the study recommend that families c

One in four Canadian children are starting their school years inadequately prepared for learning and a newly published study led by the University of Calgary shows that excessive screen time is a key contributor to this growing problem. 

“Is too much screen time a culprit in creating these disparities in learning? Likely, yes,” says Dr. Sheri Madigan, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary, and member of the Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI) at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), lead author of the release.

“Our study shows that preschool kids who get too much screen time, on video games, internet-connected devices, television screens, and other digital mediums are among those showing delays and deficits in learning by the time they enter school at the age of five.” 

Study of children in 2,500 Alberta homes

The study in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics examined the association between screen time and early childhood development in 2,500 Alberta homes between 2011 and 2016. Families were asked to report on the number of hours their children spent in front of screen-based devices. The children who were monitored spent, on average, 2.4, 3.6 and 1.6 hours of screen time per day at two, three and five years of age, respectively. These amounts exceed the Canadian Pediatrics Society’s recommended pediatric guideline which states that children aged two to five spend no more than one hour per day with high-quality programming, geared towards learning and development.  

The study also showed an association between excessive screen time and negative physical, behavioral and cognitive outcomes for the children tested. Children who had excessive screen time were failing to meet developmental milestones in language and communication, problem-solving, and fine and gross motor skills. 

“What sets this study apart from previous research is that we looked specifically at the lasting impacts of screen time. Specifically, how screen time when children are two years of age impacts development at three years, and how screen time at three years impacts development when kids are five,” says Madigan, who holds a Canada Research Chair in the Determinants of Child Development. “What these findings tell us is that one reason there may be disparities in learning and behaviour at school entry is because some kids are in front of their screens far too often in early childhood.” 

Too much screen time contributes to learning deficits

Further, Madigan says, because their days are consumed with screen time, children aren’t getting enough physical activity, which means they aren’t developing the motor skills they need to run, ride a bike, or throw a ball. 

“We also know that a lot of the positive stimulation that helps kids with their physical and cognitive development comes from interactions with caregivers,” she adds. “When they’re in front of their screens, these important parent-child interactions aren’t happening, and this can delay or derail children’s development.” 

Dr. Suzanne Tough, PhD, a co-author on this study — who is a professor in the CSM’s departments of Pediatrics and Community Health Sciences, and a member of the Owerko Centre at ACHRI, and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health — understands why parents are putting their children in front of screens. “Most families live in a home with an internet-connected device and many screens,” says Tough. “And, as a generation, we’re increasingly pressed for time. This easy access and accessibility of screens in the home creates a solution which is perceived as harmless for keeping children occupied.” 

Recommendations for a family media plan

Madigan and Tough believe that the findings from this study can be of great use to health-care professionals who are seeking to guide parents on the appropriate screen time limits for their children. They recommend implementing a family media plan. This involves controlling the number of hours spent in front of screens but it can also include establishing device-free zones (such as the dinner table) and baskets where everybody puts their devices at certain points of the day, to make room for family connection. 

As for the parents who have already fallen into the pitfalls of too much screen time for their young children, Madigan stresses they need not despair. 

“Children’s brains are developing over the course of childhood and beyond, so there’s time to make changes,” says Madigan. “Creating that family media plan can be a step in the right direction.” 

She adds: “Technology is deeply entrenched in modern-day lives. Taking family-based steps to engage with technology in positive ways may be crucial to ensuring success for our children who are growing up in the digital age.”  

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