Screen time for tots? Erin Bell sheds light on the link between digital media and early child development

A small child is sitting on the floor, hugging a toddler who sits on her lap.

ALBANY, N.Y. (September 13, 2022) - Recent research from the UAlbany School of Public Health shows that children under the age of three who spend more time on screens spend less time with other children, which may raise concern for parents—particularly given the fact that many young children have already missed play and socialization opportunities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is now generally accepted that infants and toddlers should have minimal exposure to screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under 18 months and only closely supervised digital media usage between 18 and 24 months. After that, children should be allowed no more than one hour of high-quality screen time until they reach the age of 5.

Although doctors and researchers generally agree that too much screen time may negatively impact child development, the reasons for this association are less clear. Using data from the Upstate KIDS study, which follows children born in upstate New York between 2008 and 2010, Erin Bell of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences along with her co-authors analyzed data to determine whether screen time displaces other activities like reading and playing with peers among children under the age of 3. The study tested the theory that screen time has a negative effect on cognitive development because it replaces these more beneficial activities.

Bell and her colleagues were particularly interested in the relationship between the amount of time a child devoted to digital media use versus reading and peer play because the latter two activities are believed to be important for developing a wide variety of skills later in life, including communication, problem-solving, socialization, and general cognition. Parents enrolled in the study were asked to fill out questions describing the amount of time their children spent on various activities (such as reading, play activities, and screen time) every six months. When their children reached 12 and 36 months, they were also asked to complete a survey designed to identify early childhood developmental milestones. This survey examined five developmental domains: fine and gross motor skills, communication, personal-social function, and problem-solving skills.

The results of the study indicate that while time spent reading does not seem to be negatively impacted by screen time, toddlers who spent more time with screens did indeed spend less time with their peers. The authors noted that these toddlers scored lower across 4 of the 5 skill domains measured by the development survey.

The analyses also suggested that the association observed between increased screen time and lower developmental scores was reduced for children who engaged in more peer play time, highlighting the potential for peer play to reduce or reverse the negative effects of too much screen time. Furthermore, toddlers who were given more screen time at the beginning of the study tended to increase their screen time as they aged, meaning that early screen usage could be an indicator of excessive digital media consumption later in childhood.

“This study helps us understand why screen time should be limited for infants and toddlers,” said Bell. “Our results also suggest that time spent playing with peers may mitigate and disrupt the adverse associations observed with increased screen time in infants and toddlers and child development-- providing important information for parents and caregivers."