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Kids are more likely to have sleep and behavior issues when exposed to screens too early

Researchers suggest that parents hold off on screen exposure until their toddlers are at least 18 months old

Photo (c) yaoinlove - Getty Images
Despite concerns from experts, more toddlers than ever before are exposed to screens from laptops, TVs, or smartphones. A new study found that the effects of such exposure are wide in scope. 

According to researchers from SingHealth, children who spend time in front of screens before they’re 18 months old are more likely to experience difficulties with behavior patterns and sleep habits. 

“Although this study was conducted in children with [neurodevelopmental disorders], the results from this study are applicable to the general population, and aligned with existing evidence from studies that have been done on typically developing children,” said researcher Dr. Mae Wong. 

Poor sleeping and behavioral effects

The researchers sought to discover the effects screen time can have on kids, especially when they’re in particularly important developmental stages. The team enlisted nearly 400 children between the ages of two and five years old to participate in the study, all of whom had some kind of neurodevelopmental disorder (NDD). 

While the children’s caregivers answered questions about their child’s day-to-day experiences -- such as typical sleeping habits, physical activity, diet, screen time, and socioeconomic factors -- the children themselves wore Fitbits so the researchers could electronically track their sleeping and activity outcomes over the course of the study. 

The researchers discovered the children’s screen time habits greatly affected other areas of their lives. The overwhelming majority of the children involved in the study -- nearly 94 percent -- were going over the recommended one-hour of screen time per day. 

All this time in front of screens affected the way the kids were sleeping, as nearly 60 percent of the participants had screens in their bedrooms. This ultimately contributed to over 70 percent of the kids experiencing disruptive sleep, the researchers said. 

Avoid screen time early in life

Wong and her team also warn against too much screen time during the toddler years, as more than half of the children involved in the study were either 18 months old or younger when they were first exposed to screens. 

The researchers learned that kids’ screen time often mirrored their caregivers’, and the effects of such time can be wide-reaching and detrimental. They offered some recommendations to help keep kids engaged outside of electronic devices. 

First and foremost, they advise against screen time -- even in moderation -- for all toddlers under 18 months old. When screen time can’t be avoided for young ones, the researchers suggest making it a collaborative activity that has clear starting and ending points, as doing so can ensure that kids remain well-balanced in their day-to-day lives. 

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