Excessive screen time is a key contributing factor in learning delays in young children, according to a new study from the University of Calgary.

The study, released earlier this week tracked 2,500 young children in the Calgary area between 2011 and 2016, with families reporting on the number of hours their children spent in front of a screen.

The study was in part an attempt to discover the causes of developmental gaps that have been found in Canadian schools, with past studies finding that one in four Canadian children are starting school inadequately prepared for learning.

Meanwhile the Canadian Pediatrics Society recommends that children between the age of two and five spend no more than one hour a day in front of a screen.

But the study found that on average, children had 2.4 hours of screen time at two years old, 3.6 hours at three years old, and 1.6 hours at five years old.

Because child development occurs rapidly in the first five years of life, this increased screen time at an early age can end up affecting the development of children, according to Dr. Sherri Madigan, the study’s lead author.

Looking at the lasting impacts of screen time, the study also found an association between excessive screen time and a negative effect on the physical, behavioural, and cognitive development of children.

Researchers tested children involved in the study, and found they were failing to meet developmental milestones in language and communication, problem-solving, and fine and gross motor skills.

Not only are they spending less time developing the motor skills they need to learn to run, ride a bike, or throw a ball, but equally crucial socialization development is being missed when they stare at a screen rather than talking and interacting with their caregivers.

“What the study shows is that when kids are watching screen time, they're actually not getting opportunities to practice those really important developmental skills,” Madigan told CTV Calgary.

While some screen time, such as games and programming geared towards learning and development, may be beneficial to children, experts say that screen time can often become a crutch for parents.

“I don’t think you can say all screen time is the same, but you have to ask yourself ‘What is the screen time for?’” CTV medical expert Dr. Marla Shapiro told CTV News Channel.

Shapiro says that families need to sit down and think about how and why they use screen time, and consider several factors:

  • Is your family screen time under control?
  • Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do (including activities outside the house)?
  • Is screen time interfering with your child’s sleep?
  • Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

Shapiro says that the last question is particularly important, because increased screen time is tied to an increase in obesity rates.

For parents who may have already fallen into the pitfall of overreliance on screen time, there’s no reason to despair.

Madigan says that because children’s brains are constantly developing over the course of childhood and beyond, there’s still time to take steps in the right direction.

“You can think of parents as a media mentor,” Madigan said. “So if we want to model for our kids, healthy device habits and healthy device use, then we need to practice that too,”

The study seems to contradict a new guide released by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the U.K. earlier this month, which found that many claims about the dangers of screen time may be exaggerated.

The group found that negative effects linked to screen time are mostly a result of choosing screen time over activities such as sleeping, eating well, exercising, and socializing, rather than a direct negative effect.

“The evidence base for a direct ‘toxic’ effect of screen time is contested, and the evidence of harm is often overstated,” they write.