Screen time has more than doubled for children under 2 years old since 1997, a study published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found, with time spent in front of a TV as the main driver despite a changing screen landscape.
Researchers used parent diary data previously collected by the Child Development Supplement Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan, for which the first available year was 1997 and the latest was 2014.
For children under the age of 2, daily screen time went from 1.32 hours in 1997 to 3.05 hours in 2014, with television accounting for over 2½ hours of screen time in 2014, compared to half an hour in 1997. For children ages 3 to 5, screen time averaged 2.47 hours in 1997 and did not change significantly by 2014, but TV also came to represent the majority of the screen time; going from just over an hour in 1997 to over two hours in 2014. The rise in the time spent in front of a TV comes despite a changing landscape of available electronic screens for kids.
Weiwei Chen, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at the Department of Health Policy and Management at Florida International University, explains that as a health economist and parent, she wanted to understand how long kids are spending on screens.
“I’m curious as a parent, as well as a researcher, to understand how much time our kids spend nowadays on smartphones, iPads, TV and all kinds of screens,” Chen said.
Chen explains that in 1997, screen time was defined as TV time, video games and computers. By 2014, however, screen time also included cell phones, tablets, electronic readers and learning devices. Five years later, the list of devices is even longer, and the data used in the study might be somewhat dated.
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a general pediatrician and chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital, says she is not surprised by the rise of time spent in front of a TV given the demands of modern parenting, but she nevertheless worries about it.
“When we’re busy and we’re working a couple of jobs or are overwhelmed or are a single parent, the television is so effective at holding our child’s attention and making it easier on our household,” Swanson said.
Not all screens are created equal
Swanson, who was not involved in the study, worries about electronic readers and learning devices being in the same category as other screens.
“I want them to be thought of differently,” she said. “As I watch my own children interact with iPads, televisions and tablets versus an e-reader, I think they are different devices, and I don’t want them to be lumped together.”
Swanson also explains that in addition to looking at the total screen time, we should consider the content.
“Programming has gotten better and better at capturing our kids’ attention,” she said. “And while this is provocative and compelling for children’s minds, it also sets them up for this expectation that the world moves at a certain pace, and we know that it doesn’t.”
Swanson is referring to the ever more colorful and fast-paced cartoons that make up most children’s programming, video games and apps.
Screen time and a developing brain
Excessive screen time early in life has been associated with cognitive, language and social and emotional delays, probably because screen time decreases the time kids spend interacting with parents.
Too much screen time has also been linked to an increased risk of obesity and impaired sleep in kids.
Because of this, in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended avoiding screens altogether in kids under 18 months, watching only high-quality programming and co-viewing between 18 months and 2 years of age, and limiting screen time to one hour per day for kids ages 2 to 5.
“As a child’s brain is developing, particularly in the first 2 to 3 years of life, the brain is making wild, new novel connections. It is wiring and re-wiring,” Swanson said.
It’s in these early ages that it is most important for children to be allowed to have creative play and for parents to interact with them at a pace that is appropriate for their developmental stage, she said.
Finding a balance
As important as limiting screen time is, Swanson is also realistic about the expectations placed on today’s parents.
“Let’s with understanding and empathy say that it makes sense that people do this,” Swanson said. “They’re not doing it out of any bad or malicious thought or neglect. They’re doing it because it’s an easy fix for a complex situation — which is a frustrated, hungry, tired child, and a frustrated, hungry, tired parent.”
Parents with more strain may indeed rely more heavily on the TV to help with child care. In the new study, parents of kids who spent the most time in front of screens were more likely to come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Realizing that screen time must be viewed in the context of whether families have enough support and appropriate child care, Swanson urges families to limit screen time as much as they can.
“I understand why you do it. I do it, too,” Swanson said. “But all of us have to work really hard to realize that it is a super easy solution and the harder way might be better and, in the end, might be more beneficial.”