Toddlers exceeding 3 hours a day of screen time are at risk of unhealthy behaviors later on

A team of researchers based in Singapore has found that young children aged between two to three who spend more than three hours a day watching screens, such as television, or on devices such as tablets or smartphones, are more likely to be physically inactive by the age of five.

Child in front of screen

Image Credit: Steve Heap/

The results act as a warning and a guide to parents and educators to help protect children from developing unhealthy habits.

Limited research to support WHO screen time guidelines

The topic of how screen time impacts children has been hotly debated in recent years, with researchers both warning against extended periods spent on devices, and others claiming there are no significant detrimental effects. Due to this failure to reach a firm conclusion on the impact of screen time, parents and educators have been neglected of proper guidelines to protect childrens health. While the World Health Organization recommends that children are limited to a maximum of just one hour a day of screen time, up until now there has been little scientific evidence to support this. This new study is likely to help deepen our understanding of how screen time affects young children, and suggest how it should be monitored to prevent the development of unhealthy behaviors.

A first of its kind study

The study, published this week in the journal, The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, describes how the team conducted a longitudinal study to investigate the impact of screen time in young children on their levels of physical activity later in life. The team collected data on device-specific screen viewing time from over 500 children aged between two and three years. Following this, the children were assessed at age 5.5 for their behaviors related to movement. Accelerometers were used to gage activity such as sleep, sedentary behavior, light physical activity, and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

The data collected was the first of its kind, until this point, no study longitudinal study had looked at the impact of screen time on such young children.

More screen time leads to less active time

An analysis showed that children who had spent more than three hours a day using screens at the age of two or three were less active by the age of five than children who had been using screens for less than an hour daily at the same age. Results showed that at age five these children sat down for an average of 40 minutes longer each day compared with children who spent an hour or less on screens earlier on.

This higher level of screen use at an early age was associated with spending on average 30 minutes less engaged in light physical activity each day, and an average of 10 minutes less engaged in moderate to vigorous activity. The study showed that this relationship was consistent, regardless of the type of screen watched.

Also, the study found that children aged between two and three had an average of 2.5 hours of screen time each day, which is 1.5 hours longer than the WHO recommends. This fact, along with the findings that extended screen time can lead to decreased physical activity highlights the importance of raising awareness of the negative health effects of spending too much time with devices.

These findings help to verify the results of previous research projects that have suggested a link between screen time in childhood and several health problems such as obesity and reduced motor and cognitive development. The results found in the current study help to build our knowledge and direct childrens future use of screens, however, more studies are needed to investigate the full range of health effects related to childhood screen time.

Journal reference:

Chen, B., Bernard, J., Padmapriya, N., Ning, Y., Cai, S., Lança, C., Tan, K., Yap, F., Chong, Y., Shek, L., Godfrey, K., Saw, S., Chan, S., Eriksson, J., Tan, C. and Müller-Riemenschneider, F. (2020). Associations between early-life screen viewing and 24 hour movement behaviours: findings from a longitudinal birth cohort study. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health.

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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