Screen time, that is, the time we spend engaged on our iPhones, tablets or video games, is a constant source of research, controversy and discussion. The practice of having what is essentially a miniature computer at the ready at all times is commonplace, even for very young children. There are games and apps available on smartphones and tablets that can keep children entertained, can help with development of fine motor skills and even speed along skills like speech and letter recognition. The question becomes how much is too much however and what, if any, are the negative side effects to spending so much time engaged with a machine?
A new study from researchers at Birkbeck, University of London and Kings College London looked at the use of touchscreen devices by babies and toddlers and how it affected sleep patterns in the children. There are plenty of studies that have shown negative effects from stand alone screens like televisions and video game consoles, but the recent research by the group in London looked specifically at these portable devices since they are often used by the youngest children, even those in the first year of life.
The research involved 715 parents reporting the amount of time their children spent using portable touchscreen devices and the quantity and quality of their sleep. Their results showed that children who spent more time on screens, slept less at night, slept less overall (including daily naps) and took longer to fall to asleep. Each hour spent on a touchscreen device during any 24-hour period translated to 16 minutes less sleep.
While that may not seem like much, in young children sleep is when important brain development happens as well as growth. Babies and toddlers need to sleep in order to develop appropriately. Among families enrolled in the study, 75% of the children aged between 6 months and 3 years used a touchscreen phone or tablet on a daily basis. Within that age range, touchscreen use went up with age. A whopping 92% of older children in the study, those between 2-3 years of age, used a touchscreen daily compared to only 51% of the children aged 6-11 months.
Dr. Tim Smith, from Birkbeck was of the authors of the work, which was published April 13th in the journal Scientific Reports. In a press release he explained, “These results indicate that the popularity and accessibility of touchscreen devices has led to high levels of usage by babies and toddlers, and this is associated with reduced sleep. Future research is now needed to build on this initial study to try and understand whether touchscreen use is causing sleep problems and how types of use may mitigate these risks.” Dr. Smith also stressed that some activities on touchscreens have proved beneficial for fine motor skills and cognitive development, so they certainly aren’t all bad.
There was some criticism of the study however. The amounts of sleep and touchscreen use were self-reported by parents, so verification and exact times were not part of the work. Kevin McConway, an Emeritus Professor in statistics and mathematics at the The Open University, told the BBC, "I certainly wouldn't lose any sleep over these results, if I still had young children. The children in this study used a touchscreen for about 25 minutes a day, a child who used a touchscreen for this average length of time would sleep for about 6 minutes less." The video below has more information on the research.