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Effects of Screen Time on Child Brain Development

Medically reviewed by Ruben Macapinlac, MD, DPPS · Pediatrics · Philippine Pediatric Society

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jun 17, 2021

Effects of Screen Time on Child Brain Development

Several studies reveal that early exposure to gadgets, such as smartphones, tablets, and video game consoles, harms preschoolers’ health and development. This article lists some of the effects of early screen time on child brain development.

It reduces a child’s early experiences

The period of preschool age is crucial because it is the time when a child’s brain size and function increase significantly.

More than the number of brain cells, the connections between those brain cells (synapses) are also crucial in brain development. These synapses grow in response to a child’s early experiences. That’s why kids under the age of 5 need to explore their surroundings, move around, engage with people, and use their senses.

Exposing preschoolers to devices such as smartphones, even with the good intention of promoting learning, does little to encourage the sensory experience. In other words, screen time makes them passive, which, in turn, reduces brain development.

How to Help You Preschooler Develop Their Language Skills

It leads to poor performance in screening tests

To ascertain the effects of screen time on child brain development, several researchers conducted a cohort study (research with follow up) with 2,441 mother-and-child pairs.

When the children were 24, 36, and 60 months old, the investigators took their screen time details and asked the mothers to complete the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, Third Edition (ASQ-3).

The ASQ-3 is a widely-used parent-reported developmental screening measure.  It has 30 questions that identify the child’s progress in various domains, such as personal-social, problem-solving, and communication skills.

Their study shows that early and excessive exposure to screen time when the child was just 24 months old led to poor developmental outcomes at 36 months. Similarly, excessive screen time at 36 months reduces the developmental outcomes at 60 months.

It results in sleep problems and emotional and behavioral difficulties

In one study involving 367 preschoolers with neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) such as autism, learning disorders, and language delay, the researchers looked into the connection between the kids’ screen time, sleep habits, and emotional and behavioral difficulties (EBDs).

From the caregiver-reported data, the investigators found out that:

  • 52 percent of the preschoolers had their first screen time exposure when they were just 18 months old or younger.
  • 9 percent or almost all of the participants exceeded the recommended screen time of 1 hour per day.
  • 7 percent of the preschoolers had at least 1 screen device in their bedroom.

As for the children’s sleep habits and EBDs, the study revealed that:

  • 3 percent of the children have elevated sleep problems, such as low sleep quality.
  • 9 percent have clinically elevated emotional and behavioral difficulties.

The researchers emphasized that they performed strict measures to ensure that the children’s neurodevelopmental delays don’t affect the results of their study. This means that the results of the sleep problems and EBDs are entirely driven by screen use.

Finally, they reiterated that while they conducted the study among preschoolers with NDD, the results are still applicable to the general population.

How to avoid the effects of screen time on child brain development

Many parents agree that handing smartphones and other gadgets to preschoolers is an effective way to keep them entertained. However, since early exposure poses risks to brain development, delaying screen time should be a priority. Instead of giving your children screen gadgets, take note of the following activities that boost their brain development:

Play some children’s song

To improve sensory and motor experience, play a children’s song and let your kid sing or dance to it. Most preschoolers are content with the music alone, so there’s no need to show a music video.

Allow them to draw and paint

To avoid the effects of early screen time on child brain development, why not give your kids art materials?

You can assign a space, mess-proof it with newspapers, and give your kids papers, crayons, and paint. Just make sure that the art materials are non-toxic and that you set some ground rules on how they shouldn’t paint or draw on the walls and other surfaces.

Getting creative with art means there will probably be some clutter. But it’ll be worth it since it promotes child brain development and creativity.

Encourage them to build

Building something promotes problem-solving skills and creativity. Consider giving your children building blocks and constructor sets to work on. Choose sets with large pieces to avoid choking hazards.

If there are no toys, you can give them a small space, some blankets, chairs, clips, etc. and encourage them to build a fort. To make things more enjoyable, allow them to have their lunch and dinner in there.

Spend time with them

Of course, the best way to avoid early screen time is to spend time with your preschooler. The simple act of speaking to them promotes their socialization and language skills. You can also let them play with other kids, read a book to them, or ask them to help you with simple chores.

There are many alternative activities to screen time, so parents need not worry about running out of options to try.

Learn more about parenting a preschool here. 


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Ruben Macapinlac, MD, DPPS

Pediatrics · Philippine Pediatric Society

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jun 17, 2021

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