A new study suggests that toddlers who spend too much time in front of screens (including televisions, tablets, and smartphones) may not develop the skills needed for school as well as peers who have less screen time.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, surveyed 2,441 mothers in Canada about how much time their kids spent watching television, movies or videos; playing video games; or using computers, tablets or other devices like smartphones. On average two-year-olds logged about 17 hours per week, a number which rose to 25 hours per week by the time they were three.

“Screen time is most often a sedentary or passive behavior, with very few learning opportunities,” said lead study author Sheri Madigan of the University of Calgary and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in Canada.

Screen time can slow development because, even if the application is active like building with blocks, the two dimensional skill does not translate to ability in a three dimensional world, as well, all those hours logged in front of screens are hours not spent playing with crayons, kicking a ball or learning to share. Now I’m not advocating a move back to the old etch-a-sketch, but the results don’t lie.

Testing toddlers with less screen time against those with more, by age three toddlers from the ‘more’ group tended to score lower on tests that measured communication, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving, and social skills. Further tests confirmed the same pattern continued from ages three to five years old.

Gary Goldfield, a researcher at the University of Ottawa who wasn’t involved in the study, indicates that although the study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how screen time early in childhood might directly impact development outcomes later in childhood, it does add to a growing body of evidence linking limited screen time to better cognitive, physical and psychological development in early childhood. So what can you do if your child has a Candy Crush addiction?

“For those exceeding guidelines, parents can buffer some of the negative effects of screen time by ensuring it does not interfere with adequate sleep (which it often does in older children and youth), daily physical activity or active play, and plenty of enriching, stimulating and positive face to face interaction with parents and caregivers, and of course other children,” Goldfield added.

Sage advice Gary.

Sensei Richard Verlaan