Want your child to grow up smart? Limit their screen time to an hour a day, study says 

Want your child to grow up smart? Limit their screen time to an hour a day, study suggests

  • They should also engage in traditional play for at least 15 minutes a day 
  • This will increase brain functioning and  in turn improve children’s memory
  • Hours on screens might worsen risks of obesity, low self-esteem and ADHD

Children who spend less than an hour on iPads and other gadgets each day develop better brains than their peers, a study suggests.

Researchers in Illinois found two-year-olds who capped screen time at 60 minutes and engaged in traditional play for at least 15 minutes a day had better executive function than toddlers spent more time on electronics.

They had higher scores than their peers for memory, attention span, decision-making and multi-tasking ability.

It is thought that playing outside or with traditional toys floods the brain with blood, increasing blood vessels and strengthening the neuron connections, allowing children to more easily gain cognitive development.

Staring at electronics, on the other hand, does not stimulate the brain, and is believed to thin the brain’s cortex, which manages critical thinking and reasoning.

Toddlers in the US spend two and a half hours of time watching TV, iPads, mobile phone or video games a day, on average, figures suggest. 

In the UK, Ofcom estimates that three-to-four-year-olds spend three hours a day watching screens.

Children’s screen time is thought to have increased significantly during the pandemic when home-schooling and lockdowns became common.

Children who spend hours staring at screens might be at increased risk of obesity, low self-esteem and attention deficit issues. The Illinois study found it also reduces brain function

Children who spend hours staring at screens might be at increased risk of obesity, low self-esteem and attention deficit issues. The Illinois study found it also reduces brain function

In the latest study, researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign looked data on 356 toddlers across the US.

Parents reported their children’s physical activities every day and recorded their screen time and diet through one-off surveys.

They were also asked to assess their child’s memory, ability to plan and organize their thoughts, manage their emotional responses, refrain from impulsive behavior, and swap between tasks.

They did this using the behavioral rating inventory for executive function for preschoolers, a 63-question survey in which they rated the frequency at which their toddler exhibited different everyday behaviors.

Toddlers who were on electronics for less than an hour a day were significantly better at remembering information, controlling impulses and had greater overall executive function.

Children who were more physically active for at least 15 minutes more a day also scored higher for memory recall.

Toddlerhood is a sensitive period of cognitive development and rapid brain growth, meaning factors such as food, exercise and screen time play key roles, the researchers said.

Naiman Khan, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign kinesiology and community health professor and study lead said: ‘Executive function underlies your ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors.

‘It includes abilities such as inhibitory control, which allows you to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behavior; working memory, by which you are able to hold information in mind long enough to accomplish a task; and cognitive flexibility, the adeptness with which you switch your attention between tasks or competing demands.’

He added: ‘The influence of engaging in healthy behaviors on cognitive abilities appears to be evident in early childhood, particularly for behaviors surrounding physical activity and sedentary time.’

The findings were published in The Journal of Pediatrics. 

Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend less than 60 minutes of screen time per day for children ages two to five.

They also advise physical activity, five servings of fruits and vegetables and no sugar-sweetened drinks every day.

Too much screen time… what are the risks? 

2018 data from ongoing studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that children spending two hours a day on screens scored lower on language and thinking tests.

And those with excessive screen time showed a premature thinning of the cortex, the outer layer of the brain which processes sensory information.

A 2013 study by the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston found that children who spend hours in front of screens are more likely to gain weight over their life, due to the screen time leading to poor eating habits.

Meanwhile, a 2004 study from the Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle found TV exposure in children aged one to three can lead to attention deficit problems at age seven.

An Oxford University study in 2018 indicated that increased screen time had a slight decrease in the amount of sleep children get per night.

There are also serious effects on children’s wellbeing.

Researchers at the University of Exeter in 2009 found that longer TV viewing is linked with lower self-worth and self-esteem.

It also gives a lower level of happiness, researchers from the University of British Columbia found in the same year.

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