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Thirty years ago, the idea of carrying a mini-computer in your pocket was beyond imagination. Television sets were bulky, the internet was a new frontier, and video games were confined to arcades and consoles. Fast forward to today, and technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, influencing everything from communication to entertainment. Smartphones, tablets, and an array of other digital devices offer a gateway to limitless information and interactive experiences.
As our world has become more digital, societal attitudes and cultural norms have shifted dramatically. What once required face-to-face interactions—like chatting with friends or shopping for groceries—can now be done from the comfort of one’s home. Socialization is increasingly happening online, and kids as young as one-year-old know how to swipe on a tablet. Although these advancements have many benefits, they also come with a range of concerns, especially for our youngest generations.
Japanese Study Sounds the Alarm
A new study from Tohoku University in Sendai, Japan, has brought these concerns into sharp focus. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, involved 7,097 children and found alarming associations between screen time at the age of 1 and developmental delays at ages 2 and 4. These delays included impairments in communication, problem-solving, fine motor skills, and social interactions. For instance, children who had 4 or more hours of screen time per day at age 1 were almost five times more likely to experience communication developmental delay at age 2 compared to those who had less than an hour a day.
Dr. Taku Obara, the lead researcher, does caution that the results represent an association, not causation. However, clinicians and experts like Dr. Jason Nagata of the University of California, San Francisco, suggest that the links are plausible. Passive screen time might disrupt interactions with caregivers, limit opportunities for verbal exchanges, and impede the development of essential skills. These findings underscore the importance of established guidelines from the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommend a maximum of one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5 and no screen time for those under 18 months. Despite these guidelines, a recent meta-analysis found that only a minority of children meet these recommendations.
The potential harms of screen time on communication skills may have to do with children being robbed of drivers for language development, said Dr. John Hutton, associate professor of general and community pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Kids learn how to talk if they’re encouraged to talk, and very often, if they’re just watching a screen, they’re not having an opportunity to practice talking,” he said. “They may hear a lot of words, but they’re not practicing saying a lot of words or having a lot of that back-and-forth interaction.”
Screen Time: A Double-Edged Sword
It’s important to recognize that not all screen time is detrimental. Educational programs and video chatting with family members can have positive effects. However, indiscriminate screen use, especially that which is not interactive or educational, can have adverse consequences.
Obara and colleagues acknowledged the limitation of their study in lack of data to separate educational screen time from other types of screen time. “Doing so may have helped us in examining the association between screen time and child development while considering both positive and negative aspects of screen time,” they wrote.
Nagata agreed: “The study grouped all screen time into a single category but not all screen time is equal. For instance, watching educational programs or video chatting with family is not the same as passively watching television or fast-paced TikTok videos.”
“Also, (with) passive screen viewing that doesn’t have an interactive or physical component, children are more likely to be sedentary and then aren’t able to practice motor skills,” Nagata said.
If children don’t have enough time to play or are handed a tablet to pacify negative emotions, that could prevent the important developmental milestone that is the ability to navigate discomfort.
“Longer term, one of the real goals is for kids just to be able to sit quietly in their own thoughts,” Hutton said. “When they’re allowed to be a little bit bored for a second, they get a little uncomfortable, but then they’re like, ‘OK, I want to make myself more comfortable.’ And that’s how creativity happens.”
10 Ways to Reduce Screen Time for Children
Reducing screen time doesn’t mean eliminating technology; it means using it mindfully. Here are ten strategies to manage your child’s screen time effectively:
1 | Set Screen Time Limits
Discuss as a family how much screen time is acceptable and stick to the decided limits. Use timers to signal the end of screen time.
2 | Create Screen-Free Zones
Designate areas like the dining room and bedrooms as screen-free zones to encourage more face-to-face interactions.
3 | Prioritize Outdoor Play
Encourage physical activity by taking children outdoors for playtime. Physical exercise is not only healthy but also aids in cognitive development.
4 | Designate Tech-Free Times
Identify periods, like the first hour after coming home or an hour before bedtime, where no screens are allowed. Use this time for interactive activities like reading or family games.
5 | Offer Alternative Activities
Instead of screens, provide a variety of other engaging activities like crafts, board games, or puzzles.
6 | Be a Role Model
Children often emulate adults. Limit your own screen time to set a good example.
7 | Review Content
Not all screen time is equal. Opt for educational or interactive content that engages the child rather than passive entertainment.
8 | Engage with Your Child
When your child does use screens, co-view or co-play with them. This makes screen time a more interactive, shared experience.
9 | Monitor and Discuss
Regularly review your family’s screen time habits and make adjustments as needed. Open dialogue can help children understand the reasoning behind the limits.
10 | Introduce Screen Sabbaths
Choose one day a week as a screen-free day. Use this time to focus on outdoor activities, cooking, or any other form of active, shared family time.
The recent Japanese study is a critical addition to the growing body of evidence suggesting that we need to be cautious about the impact of screen time on young children. While screens have their place and can offer valuable educational experiences, their excessive use, especially in early childhood, could be hindering the full spectrum of human development. By taking proactive steps to manage and reduce screen time, we can hope to balance the benefits and drawbacks of this digital age for the well-being of our youngest generations.
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