Infant screen time linked to early childhood cognitive deficits

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 

Screen time use in infancy and early childhood may have detrimental effects on cognition as children grow.

A new study published last month in JAMA Pediatrics found a correlation between screen time and poor attention and executive function. These findings are associated with impairments that are essential for health, academic achievement, and future work success.


The study included 437 participants from the population-based study Growing Up in Singapore Toward Healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) where pregnant mothers were enrolled from June 2009 through December 2010. Researchers gathered data from three different time points at ages 12 months, 18 months, and 9 years old.

Parents reported screen time usage at 12 months and a group of 157 children had an electroencephalography (EEG) done at 18 months. At 9 years old attention and executive functions were measured with teacher-reported questionnaires and objective laboratory-based tasks.


The results indicate that screen time exposure may have an impact on neural functions. Executive function skills begin to develop during the first year of life. These skills are essential in planning, maintaining focus, prioritizing tasks, and regulating behaviors and emotions. Children that have deficits in executive function have a difficult time controlling impulses, following multi-step instructions, and paying attention.

Infants and children exposed to screens are more vulnerable to executive function deficits because their brains have a difficult time processing what they are seeing on the screen, which means that the brain has to work harder to comprehend the images. The researchers note that more studies need to be conducted to determine if screen time is the cause of executive function impairments or if there are other environmental contributing factors.


However, the average amount of screen time at 12 months is 2 hours a day, which far exceeds the amount that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends. The organization’s guidance acknowledges that technology has transformed how children interact with the world. However, children younger than 2 years old cannot learn from traditional digital media as they do from interactions with caregivers. Instead, they require “hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills. Because of their immature symbolic, memory, and attentional skills.”

The AAP recommends no screen time before 18 months old, with the exception of video chatting, and just 1 hour a day for children aged 2 to 5 years old. Increased screen time is linked to numerous negative health outcomes such as obesity, impaired sleep, and cognitive, language, and emotional delays. It is also associated with fewer verbal and nonverbal interactions between parents and children.

Other studies have highlighted the importance of limiting and reducing screen time use, especially as screen time and social media use doubled during the pandemic. Previous research has found that children with excessive exposure to screens at age 2 spent less time reading print books by age 3 and reported greater screen time at 5 years old.

Screen time has also been linked to poor mental health outcomes, especially in adolescents, where mental health has been declared a national crisis by the surgeon general. Excessive screen and social media use have been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, loneliness, lack of sleep, negative body image, and dangerous behaviors that are promoted by social media algorithms.

Unfortunately, screens and technology are ubiquitous in almost every part of life, but parents can make a difference by establishing time limits and scheduling screen-free, unstructured playtime to interact with their children.