Children under 5 getting excessive screen time, study finds

A new study shows that most children under 5 years old are getting more screen time than the recommended amount.

The study was recently published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers from The University of Calgary examined more the 89,000 children. Their results revealed that 24.7% of children younger than 2 years avoided screen time altogether. However, only 35.6% of children aged 2 to 5 years met the guideline of no more than 1 hour a day of screen time. 

Researchers said one in four children younger than 2 years and one in three children aged 2 to 5 years are meeting screen time guidelines.

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They’re asking for public health leaders to promote more initiatives dedicated to healthy screen time use.

"The findings of this meta-analysis indicate that only a minority of children 5 years and younger are meeting screen time guidelines," the study pointed out. "This highlights the need to provide support and resources to families to best fit evidence-based recommendations into their lives."

In 2019, The World Health Organization issued its first-ever guidance for how much screen time children under 5 should get: not very much, and none at all for those under 1.

The U.N. health agency said that kids under 5 should not spend more than one hour watching screens every day — and that less is better.

The guidelines are somewhat similar to advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics. That group recommends children younger than 18 months should avoid screens other than video chats. It says parents of young children under two should choose "high-quality programming" with educational value and that can be watched with a parent to help kids understand what they’re seeing.

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WHO did not specifically detail the potential harm caused by too much screen time, but said the guidelines — which also included recommendations for physical activity and sleep — were needed to address the increasing amount of sedentary behavior in the general population. It noted that physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for death and a contributor to the rise in obesity.

However, other researchers conducted a longitudinal cohort study between May 2020 and April 2021 among 2026 Canadian children between the ages of two to 18 years old, measuring primary outcomes with depression and anxiety and secondary outcomes with conduct problems, irritability, hyperactivity, and inattention.

"Compared to children and youth with lower screen use, those with higher screen use had higher levels of mental health symptoms," study co-author Dr. Catherine S. Birken told United Press International (UPI).

The authors noted these results are partly explained because the study was conducted in the midst of the pandemic when schools were closed for several months in Canada, but even after the schools reopened, the increased screen time appeared to have lasting effects.

In those who watched television or used electronic devices more than two or three hours per day, the younger children (with a mean age of almost six years old) were more likely to have conduct problems, hyperactivity and inattention issues, while the older children were more likely to have symptoms of depression, anxiety, and inattention.

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The authors concluded, "In this cohort study, different types of screen use were associated with distinct mental health symptoms in children and youth during COVID-19, suggesting that not all screen use is equal. Our findings may help inform public health guidelines that consider different forms of screen use in prevention of mental health disorders in children and youth during the pandemic."

The Associated Press and FOX News contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.