Increased screen time leading to more developmentally delayed children

Children’s use of smart phones and other screens — such as TV and video games — could be making them less emotionally and socially ready to start school, a pair of recent reports shows.

When youngsters spend a lot of time watching screens, it’s linked to delays reaching developmental milestones, says a new study published by Sheri Madigan in JAMA Pediatrics. More than 2,000 Calgary toddlers were assessed several times up to their fifth birthdays between 2011 and 2016. The two year olds watched screens an average of 2.4 hours every day, the three year olds watched them 3.6 hours a day and the five year olds, who would have just started kindergarten, watched them 1.6 hours a day.

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There’s a pediatric guideline that children ought to spend no more than one hour a day watching high-quality programs, the study says. Excessive screen time can hinder children’s ability to develop optimally, it says.

The study recognizes that children with delays might be using screens more than their peers, but concludes it’s more likely that increased screen time leads to developmental delays and not the other way around.  

B.C.’s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry released another report last week with more troubling statistics about our little ones. In increasing numbers, children are showing up to kindergarten vulnerable in one or more developmental areas, the report says.

It uses the Early Development Instrument, a survey that measures five areas that predict adult health: physical health and wellbeing, language and cognitive development, social competence, emotional maturity and communication skills and general knowledge.

Over the past decade, the results of this assessment have declined for B.C.’s littlest humans.

In Vancouver, more than one-third of kindergarten students are vulnerable in at least one of these areas and the number of children who are vulnerable in two or more areas is growing.

The report singles out the emotional maturity and social competence areas as being particular weaknesses in B.C. Poverty is a factor in many cases, the report says.

It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together and arrive at the idea that kids are more socially and emotionally immature and vulnerable because they’ve spent too much time looking at screens and not enough outside playing with other children or being read to by their parents.

I’d even go so far as to say it probably doesn’t help that mom and dad (and even grandma and grandpa) probably pay more attention to their own screens than to their children.

The early years of a child’s life are critical to their development and it’s essential that they have strong bonds with other people including lots of communication and physical activity.  

While Henry’s report mostly shows that British Columbians are very healthy, it found that “hazardous drinking” is on the rise, particularly among young women, that British Columbians don’t think their mental health is very good and they’re not particularly satisfied with their lives, and that the opioid crisis is reducing the overall life expectancy, primarily among young males and Indigenous people.

Given that addiction and mental health are closely related, and that Henry’s report says mental illness costs Canada about $51 billion a year, it would seem worth it to do anything to make sure children get off to the best start in their lives, and yet, in B.C., some of the indicators for young children are worsening.

One of Henry’s seven recommendations is specifically to increase support for government programs and policies that focus on health among women, children, youth and families.

Schools, pre-schools and high-quality daycares have a very important role to play ensuring children are not vulnerable as they begin, and progress, through the education system.

That’s one reason the $10-a-day child care campaign in B.C. was focused on ensuring subsidized and new day care spots would be in high-quality centres. In February 2018, the B.C. government announced a three-year, $1-billion child care plan, based on quality, affordability and accessibility. If it’s done right, this should be a good investment that could help to turn around these troubling trends. 

Every $1 spent on early childhood development and care saves up to $9 in future spending on health, social and justice services, Henry’s report says.

After all, children enrolled in high-quality daycare centres don’t spend their days glued to screens — they’re busy playing with other kids, developing their social and motor skills. The long-awaited poverty reduction plan won’t hurt either — once it’s finally released.



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