Researchers from Osaka University have discovered that mitigating the harmful effects of screen time on young minds could be as straightforward as encouraging children to play outside.
Parents with young children are often concerned about the amount of time they spend on screens, such as tablets, phones, computers, and televisions. They may also be wondering about the impact of screen time on their child’s development and if there is a way to counteract its negative effects. A recent study from Japan has found that a higher amount of screen time at age 2 is correlated with weaker communication and practical skills at age 4. However, when children engage in outdoor play, some of the negative impacts of screen time can be mitigated.
The study, set to be published in March in JAMA Pediatrics, tracked 885 children from 18 months to 4 years of age. The researchers examined the correlation between three crucial factors: the average daily screen time at age 2, the amount of outdoor play at age 2 years and 8 months, and neurodevelopmental outcomes, specifically, communication, daily living skills, and socialization scores, as measured by the standardized Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale-II assessment tool, at age 4.
“Although both communication and daily living skills were worse in 4-year-old children who had had more screen time at aged 2, outdoor play time had very different effects on these two neurodevelopmental outcomes,” explains Kenji J. Tsuchiya, Professor at Osaka University and lead author of the study. “We were surprised to find that outdoor play didn’t really alter the negative effects of screen time on communication—but it did have an effect on daily living skills.”
Specifically, almost one-fifth of the effects of screen time on daily living skills were mediated by outdoor play, meaning that increasing outdoor play time could reduce the negative effects of screen time on daily living skills by almost 20%. The researchers also found that, although it was not linked to screen time, socialization was better in 4-year-olds who had spent more time playing outside at 2 years 8 months of age.
“Taken together, our findings indicate that optimizing screen time in young children is really important for appropriate neurodevelopment,” says Tomoko Nishimura, senior author of the study. “We also found that screen time is not related to social outcomes and that even if screen time is relatively high, encouraging more outdoor play time might help to keep kids healthy and developing appropriately.”
These results are particularly important given the recent COVID-19-related lockdowns around the world, which have generally led to more screen time and less outdoor time for children. Because the use of digital devices is difficult to avoid even in very young children, further research looking at how to balance the risks and benefits of screen time in young children is eagerly awaited.