Babies exposed to more than 4 hours of screen time a day showed delays as toddlers—though even researchers say eliminating screen time isn’t the answer
Handing your screaming one-year-old a little Cocomelon when the line at the grocery store won’t budge is an act of parental self-preservation, but a new study on baby screen time says just don’t lean on screens too much. Published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics (JAMA Pediatrics), researchers found a link between screen time in babies and developmental delays in communication, problem-solving, social, personal, and fine motor skills.
The study followed more than 7,000 babies exposed to varying levels of screen time from ages one to four. While most of the children watched less than two hours per day, 18 percent saw from two to less than four hours daily, and 4 percent watched more than four hours each day. The association between screen time and developmental delays was greatest in the babies who watched the most—they experienced delays in communication and problem-solving skills during follow-ups at ages 2 and 4. They also experienced delayed social, personal, and fine motor skills at age 2, but these delays were mostly gone by age 4.
The researchers said the delays weren’t caused by the screens but, rather, by the fact that the babies were missing out on actual face-to-face interactions with their parents and other humans. Whether they get screen time or not, what helps babies develop the most is time playing and engaging with other people (those hours of Peekaboo pay off!).
They also noted that their study didn’t distinguish between screen time that was meant to be educational and shows that were strictly for entertainment. Future studies, the researchers said, should explore that angle further since children’s educational programming can mimic the exaggerated facial expressions, words, and tones of voice that babies get during real-world interactions.
Here’s something important to note, though: Even the researchers agree that avoiding all screen time is not the answer—and it’s just not practical for parents. David J. Lewkowicz, a developmental psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center, said parents ask him all the time how much screen time is the right amount.
“Talk to your child as much as you can, face-to-face as much as you can,” he said.
On the subject of eliminating screens completely, he added, “No parent would listen to that. It just has to be in moderation. With a heavy dose of real-life social interaction.”