Early Screen Exposure May Lead to Behavioral and Emotional Difficulties in Children with NDDs: Study
Thu, October 21, 2021

Early Screen Exposure May Lead to Behavioral and Emotional Difficulties in Children with NDDs: Study

Living in a modern world comes with great innovations and at the same time, consequences, especially to the younger ones / Photo Credit: dimaberkut via 123rf


“To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more,” the World Health Organization said in its April 2019 guidelines on physical activity, sleep, and sedentary behavior for children. Now, a new study from the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital in collaboration with the National University of Singapore has revealed that early screen exposure may lead to behavioral and emotional difficulties in children with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism.

Screen time and children’s health

The study, which appeared in the medical research platform Medical Xpress, states that the child’s first exposure to digital media as early as 18 months of age and the presence of multiple screen devices in their bedroom is linked with elevated sleep disruption and behavior and emotional difficulties in preschool kids. By digital media, the researchers refer to smartphones, television, video game consoles, and tablets.

The KKH and NUS team said that long term sleep disturbance could lead to difficulties, including inattention, low mood, and hyperactivity. To come up with such a conclusion, the team collected self-reported information from a total of 367 caregivers of kids between two and five years old. The data collection occurred between 2015 and 2017. They said that 57.7 percent of kids had at least one screen gadget in their bedrooms and 52 percent of them were exposed to digital media or electronics at 18 months old or earlier.

Sleep problems, which include having difficulty falling asleep at night and daytime sleepiness, are experienced by 72.3 percent of the kids. Furthermore, 59.9 percent of them had emotional and behavioral difficulties (EBD). A majority (93.9 percent) of the kids exceeded the one-hour limit of daily screen time that is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.


Too much screen-time for kids may cause several sleeping problems / Photo Credit: Jaromír Chalabala via 123rf


Increased screen use in children was linked with caregivers or parents who also have higher screen use themselves or those who have fewer house rules about digital media use. This is why the Australian parenting platform Raising Children previously published the significant role that parents play in role-modeling for their children the proper time to use the device. “When you take a healthy and responsible approach to screen time, you set a powerful example for our child,” Raising Children said, emphasizing that it is possible to use technology in positive and balanced ways.

The link between screen exposure and EBD

The Singapore-based research recommended that parents and caregivers be alert to the detrimental health associations between sleep quality, poor screen time, and EBDs. While there are educational benefits from age-appropriate screen use, the team suggests the delay of a child’s first exposure to devices. If possible, it should be later than 18 months to lessen the negative effects on their development. They likewise believe that a longitudinal study would enable better interpretation of screen time effects for long-term use. The team emphasizes kids with NDDs as they may experience more difficulties disengaging from device use. Increased screen time may also exacerbate their existing conditions.

Share of population with autism, developmental intellectual disability

Scientific online publication Our World in Data details the share of people with autism in 2016. Here are some countries included in the list: United States (0.36 percent), Canada (0.38 percent), Brazil (0.28 percent), Russia (0.26 percent), China (0.24 percent), Australia (0.46 percent),  Mexico (0.29 percent), Indonesia (0.25 percent), Philippines (0.24 percent), Japan (0.41 percent), South Korea (0.33 percent), North Korea (0.23 percent), and Iran (0.27 percent).

Meanwhile, there were 46.54 million females and 54.17 million males in the world with developmental intellectual disability in 2016. The number slightly decreased in 2017 with 46.48 million females and 54.09 million males. These are people with delayed or impaired speech, motor condition, language, and visuospatial skills.



Home computer access and internet use

The scientific publication went on to state the numbers surrounding technology adoption in US households. In 2016, 89.30 percent of households in the US had computer access and 88.00 percent had internet access. Research organization focused on improving the lives of children and youth Child Trends also shared the key facts on home computer access and internet use in the world. It noted that three in five children ages 3 to 17 used the internet at home. This was based on 2015 data.

Home internet use by race and Hispanic origin was detailed as follows: Non-Hispanic whites (65 percent), Black (53 percent), Hispanic (51 percent), and Asian or Pacific Islander (60 percent).

WHO advisor on childhood obesity and physical activity Juana Willumsen, who was not part of the Singapore study, said via American tech news and media network The Verge that the study was not just about screen time. It is also about the advantage of spending time doing anything other than using tablets or smartphones. For example, they can have healthy physical activity and sleep. 

With all these kinds of digital media limits, the burden falls on parents and children’s caregivers. The screen is not toxic per se, but children should take advantage of face-to-face interactions in order for them to have different experiences of the world or their surroundings.