Updated 11 December 2019

The more screen time, the more attention issues for young children

In a new study, researchers found that when young children spent more than an hour a day staring at a smartphone or tablet screen, they were at much higher risk of attention issues.

Five-year-olds who spend more than two hours a day in front of a smartphone or tablet may be at risk of attention problems, a new study suggests.

Excessive "screen time" among children has been the subject of much research – particularly now that even the youngest kids are staring at phones and iPads every day.

'Clinically significant' attention issues

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to set limits on screen time for preschoolers: no more than one hour a day for two- to five-year-olds. That's, in part, to make sure they have plenty of "unplugged" playtime.

In the new study, researchers found that when young children went well above those limits, they were at much higher risk of attention issues.

Compared with their peers who spent no more than a half-hour in front of a screen each day, five-year-olds who logged over two hours were six times more likely to have "clinically significant" attention issues.

And they were nearly eight times as likely to have signs and symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The findings do not prove that screen-gazing is to blame, acknowledged senior researcher Dr Piush Mandhane, an associate professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.

But two-plus hours of screen time a day is clearly excessive, Mandhane said. "And it's something that parents can act on," he noted.

Kids should be physically active

Preschoolers should be up and moving instead, said Mandhane. His team found that youngsters who regularly had "organised" physical activity were at lower risk of attention problems.

Given the ubiquity of mobile devices – and young children's interest in them – "it's never too early to make a screen-time plan for your kids," Mandhane said.

"And less is better," he added.

It's true that screen limits make sense, and that young kids should be physically active, said Yamalis Diaz, a clinical assistant professor of child psychiatry at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

"No one disputes the need for children to be active," said Diaz, who was not involved in the study. "I tell parents, 'screen time steals real time.'"

However, she cautioned, this study cannot pinpoint screens as the culprit behind kids' attention issues. It's possible those children "battle" their parents on a lot of things – and parents either give in, or hand over a phone as a way to avert a meltdown.

Waiting on research

"These may be the children who have difficulty accepting limits in general," Diaz said.

There's also the question of how much time their parents were spending on devices. Some kids, Diaz noted, learn that the best way to get mom and dad to look up from their phones is by misbehaving.

As it stands, she added, "we're still waiting on research to show whether [screen time] has any particular effects on children's brain development."

The findings were published online in the journal PLOS ONE. They're based on more than 2 300 Canadian families taking part in a long-term health study.

Parents reported on their children's typical screen use – including TV, computers, tablets, gaming devices and smartphones – at ages three and five. When their kids were five, parents completed a standard questionnaire on child behaviour.

Supplanting other activities

Overall, heavy screen use at age five was linked to higher risks of attention problems and behaviour problems consistent with ADHD. That was true, Mandhane said, even when factors like family income and parents' stress levels were taken into account.

Why would screen time affect kids' ability to pay attention? One way, Mandhane said, could be by supplanting other activities, such as exercise and sleep.

Organised physical activity is important in building attention skills, Diaz agreed. "There's real peer-to-peer interaction," she said. "They're having to listen to an adult. And they're learning new things, like fine-motor skills."

Adequate sleep is critical, too, Diaz said. "Even as adults, we see that," she noted. "If we're sleep-deprived, we're grouchy and it's hard to pay attention."

Image credit: iStock


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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