Screen time among toddlers has skyrocketed — and exposure is beginning in infancy, NIH study suggests

The amount of time that children are spending each day watching television or using a computer or mobile device is increasing alarmingly, according to an analysis by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the University at Albany and the New York University Langone Medical Center.

Researchers found that children’s daily screen time increased from 53 minutes at age 12 months to more than 150 minutes at 3 years old. Children who had been in home-based child care or were born to first-time mothers were found to have the most excessive screen use by age 8. The study was published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

“Our results indicate that screen habits begin early,” said Edwina Yeung, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and an investigator in the Epidemiology Branch of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). “This finding suggests that interventions to reduce screen time could have a better chance of success if introduced early.”

Researchers found that 87 percent of the nearly 4,000 children analyzed for the study had daily screen time exceeding the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations.

The AAP recommends that parents keep their children away from digital media during infancy, suggesting that children under 18 months should avoid exposure altogether. For children aged 18 to 24 months, the AAP recommends a slow introduction to digital media, and then limiting exposure to screen time to one hour a day for kids aged 2 to 5.

Though researchers observed that exposure to screen time generally increased throughout toddlerhood, by age 7 and 8, screen time averaged below 1.5 hours per day, which researchers hypothesized is due to more time being consumed by school-related activities.

NICHD researchers analyzed data collected during the Upstate KIDS study, which was initiated to following the development of children conceived after fertility treatments and born in New York State from 2008 to 2010.

Mothers of approximately 4,000 children who took part in the study responded to questions about their children’s media habit and screen use when they were 12, 18, 24, 30 and 36 months of age. Mothers then followed up when their children were 7 or 8 years old to answer similar questions.

The study authors classified the children into two groups, determined by how much each child’s daily screen time increased from 1 year old to 3 years old.

Of the approximately 4,000 children included in the analysis, 73 percent had the lowest increase, from about 51 minutes a day to about an hour and 47 minutes each day. The remaining 27 percent of children had the highest increase, from about 37 minutes of screen time a day to about four hours a day.

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Parents’ level of education was found to be correlated with which group each child was placed into. Higher levels of parental education were associated with lower odds of being included in the second group. Researchers also classified children into percentiles based on daily screen time, and they found that children of parents who had only a high school diploma or equivalent were more than twice as likely to be in the 10th, or highest, percentile.

Researchers also found that boys and twins were more likely to belong to the highest screen time group, compared to girls and single-born children, respectively. They also found that children of first-time mothers were almost twice as likely to be in the group experiencing the higher increase.

Finally, when it came to children receiving at-home versus center-based care, those in home-based care — regardless of whether that care is provided by a parent, babysitter or relative — were more than twice as likely to have high screen time than their counterparts.

To reduce screen time for children, the AAP suggests actions such as creating tech-free zones during certain parts of the day (such as mealtimes) as well as in certain locations, such as a child’s bedroom, avoiding the use of technology as an emotional pacifier, making concerted efforts to use devices along with your children to encourage social interaction, and to be a good role model by limiting your own media use.

This story was reported from Los Angeles.