Researchers to study effects of screen use in young children

Exposure to screens, including televisions, tablets, smartphones and game systems, is common among young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children between the ages of 2 to 5 years old use screens for no more than one hour per day and limit this use to educational and developmentally appropriate content. However, children across the U.S. average about two-and-a half hours of screen use daily – more than double the recommended amount. Past studies have shown associations between screen use and child development and health issues. Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, Rice University and Northern Illinois University received a $6.2 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institutes of Health, to more robustly investigate the correlation between screen use and child development and health. They will develop a program of research approaches that objectively measures children’s screen use to investigate the impact on young children

“The research so far has been done using parent-report of what their child typically does when it comes to screen use,” said Dr. Teresia O’Connor, associate professor of pediatrics – nutrition and associate director for human sciences at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor and Texas Children’s Hospital and principal investigator of the study. “While parents are well-meaning, there are problems with conducting research that uses parent reports on typical use as the only source of information.”

Some parents may not be aware of how much time their children spend on screens, and they also might not remember the amount of time children are exposed to screens each day. This means the existing research may not provide strong data to support the correlation between screen time and health or developmental outcomes.

Researchers at Baylor have been working with electrical engineers at Rice to develop new technologies to objectively and directly measure children’s screen use. The technology, FLASH-TV, will measure children’s television watching and use of other large stationary screens, such as large gaming systems. The five-year grant will allow researchers to use FLASH-TV and apps on mobile devices to examine how screens impact preschool-aged children’s sleep, growth and problem-solving abilities.

The research will consist of three studies, as well as the development of three support systems at Baylor and Rice to help researchers measure children’s screen use.

  • Study 1 will look at the duration of screen use among preschool-aged children and how it influences their sleep as well as their growth over a one-year period.
  • Study 2 will follow the same group of children from Study 1 to understand how screen use is associated with their learning and memory while investigating how parents can help children use screens in a way that supports their brain development.
  • Study 3 uses a completely different group of preschool-aged children, giving them a screen at different times before bed to learn if timing of when screen exposure occurs has an impact on children’s sleep and circadian rhythms.

Projects 1 and 2 will occur simultaneously, following each child for one year total. Project 3 is a four-year study that will follow different children over the course of a few weeks.

“We are excited to be able to use technology to better understand the association between screen use and young children’s health and development. If there are associations with poorer outcomes, we hope to provide guidance on how to reduce risk. If are there are no associations, we hope to put parents’ minds at ease that some screen use, with age-appropriate content, doesn’t put their child at risk,” O’Connor said. “This will help health professionals provide recommendations regarding screen media use, and it will help parents make decisions about the amount of time their children spend using screens each day.

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