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Taking children outside can help mitigate negative effects of screen time: Research

by Pragati Singh

You are undoubtedly worried about how much time your children spend looking at a screen, whether it is a tablet, phone, computer, or television. You are undoubtedly interested about how screen time impacts your child’s development and if you can do anything to offset any harmful consequences.

According to new Japanese study, increased screen time at age 2 is connected with worse speech and daily life abilities at age 4; however, some of the detrimental impacts of screen time are minimised when children also play outside. The researchers tracked 885 children aged 18 months to 4 years in the study, which will be published in JAMA Pediatrics in March.

They investigated the relationship between three key features: the average amount of screen time per day at age 2, the amount of outdoor play at age 2 years 8 months, and neurodevelopmental outcomes—specifically, communication, daily living skills, and socialisation scores on the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale-II at age 4.

“Although both communication and daily living skills were worse in 4-year-old children who had had more screen time at aged 2, outdoor play time had very different effects on these two neurodevelopmental outcomes,” said Kenji J. Tsuchiya, Professor at Osaka University and lead author of the study, adding, “We were surprised to find that outdoor play didn’t really alter the negative effects of screen time on communication–but it did have an effect on daily living skills.”

Outside play, in particular, mediated almost one-fifth of the impacts of screen time on daily living skills, implying that increasing outdoor play time might reduce the detrimental effects of screen time on daily living skills by about 20%. The researchers also discovered that, while not related to screen time, socialising was better among 4-year-olds who had spent more time playing outside when they were 2 years and 8 months old.

“Taken together, our findings indicate that optimizing screen time in young children is really important for appropriate neurodevelopment,” said Tomoko Nishimura, senior author of the study, adding, “We also found that screen time is not related to social outcomes and that even if screen time is relatively high, encouraging more outdoor play time might help to keep kids healthy and developing appropriately.”

These findings are especially significant in light of recent COVID-19-related lockdowns throughout the world, which have usually resulted in increased screen usage and less outside time for children. Because it is impossible to resist using digital devices even in very young children, more study on how to balance the hazards and advantages of screen time in young children is eagerly sought.

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