A new study suggests excessive screen viewing could impact the cognitive development of preschoolers. It also underscores what we’ve known for a while—that too much screen time can have a negative impact on kids in a lot of ways. And that includes their vision.
First, let’s take a closer look at this study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics. It investigates the possible association between screen-based media use and, specifically, “differences in the structural integrity of brain white matter tracts” in preschoolers.
Located in the deeper tissues of the brain, white matter plays a key role in supporting language and literacy skills, among others.
Forty-seven healthy preschoolers between three and five years old, along with their parents, participated in the study, which involved:
- Children undergoing diffusion tensor MRI, which measures brain white matter integrity.
- Parents completing a screening tool questionnaire based on the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations for screen time.
- Children taking standard cognitive tests.
Study Results: More Screen Viewing Associated With Negative Outcomes
Major findings of the study include the following:
Higher rates of screen viewing, poorer brain white matter integrity. Children whose screen time viewing exceeded AAP guidelines were more likely to have lower measures of white matter integrity in areas of the brain known to support emergent language and literacy skills, visual processing, and executive functions (e.g., self-management, organization, and mental control).
Higher rates of screen viewing, lower cognitive test scores. Children with higher rates of screen viewing also exhibited lower scores on related cognitive assessments.
The researchers state that “causation is beyond the scope of this study.” However, they also point out that their findings demonstrate a clear need for more research on how screen use affects the developing brain in early childhood, especially given the rapid and widespread use of handheld screen devices by children.
More Reason for Concern: Young Children’s Screen Habits Far Exceed AAP Recommendations
The above study’s findings are even more concerning when considering recent survey data of 4,000 children published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Nearly 80% of 2-year-olds and almost 95% of 3-year-olds exceeded the screen time recommendations from the AAP.
For children between 2 and 5, the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media recommends that parents limit digital media use to a total of one hour a day.
The Council explains that minimizing screen time can lead to beneficial behaviors that promote:
- Social and cognitive development
- Stronger parent-child relationships
- More print book reading
It also points to research that has associated excessive digital media use with:
- Increased risks for obesity
- Shorter sleep duration and poorer sleep quality
- Delays in various social and cognitive skills
Eye Stress and Missed Opportunities for Development: Additional Problems With Too Much Screen Viewing
Findings like those described above should give everyone pause when it comes to children’s use of screen-based digital media, especially hand-held devices.
Here at The Vision Therapy Center, we’ve recommended for many years that parents limit the screen time exposure of their children for additional reasons:
Nearpoint Stress on Developing Eyes
Children who view smartphones and similar hand-held devices often hold them dangerously close to their eyes.
“A child’s developing visual system is simply not prepared to handle this kind of nearpoint stress on the eyes,” says Dr. Brandon Begotka, a developmental optometrist at The Vision Therapy Center.
Moreover, this nearpoint stress is compounded by the addictive quality of hand-held devices. “We all know that without adult supervision and restrictions, children will easily spend an hour or more staring at a screen without a break,” Begotka says.
Nearpoint stress in the short-term can lead to eye fatigue, dry and irritated eyes, and difficulty in adjusting to distance vision.
Excessive Screen Time Detracts From Valuable Activities That Facilitate Development
“The more time a child spends looking at a screen, the less time they’re going to have for playtime, exploration, and social interaction,” says Begotka.
Children are on a developmental timeline when it comes to their social and cognitive skills. That’s why doing things like playing outdoors, interacting face-to-face with parents, and doing puzzles and games that involve manipulating three-dimensional objects are actually a critical part of their development.
Too much screen time may interrupt valuable activities that are crucial for a child’s social and cognitive development.
Begotka suggests that too much screen time interrupts these valuable opportunities.
Is Your Child’s Screen Viewing Getting Out of Hand?
Yes, viewing screen-based digital media is becoming more and more common for people of all ages. But as a parent, you are in a unique position to control just how much your child stares at a screen. Start with these basic considerations:
Trust your gut and take action. If you think your child is spending too much time watching a screen, there’s a good chance you’re right. Don’t ignore your gut. Start taking steps to limit screen time. If you don’t take action, who will?
Be mindful of the behavior you’re modeling to your children. Children notice—and are influenced by—how adults use digital devices. How digitally distracted are you? Model the kind of screen habits you want your child to have.
Create time for quality interaction. Young children’s language development is tied closely with parental interaction. You can improve the quality of this interaction by eliminating the possibility of being distracted by your smartphone and giving them 100% of your attention as you:
- Make it a regular routine to read print books together
- Have face-to-face interaction that includes making eye contact with one another
- Explore the outdoors more—from your own backyard to local parks to longer hiking trips
The screen-based digital media of today opens up a whole new world for all of us. However, current research like the study described above underscores that we need to be mindful of how much we allow this technology to dominate our lives. This is especially true when it comes to the crucial developmental years of our children.