A QUARTER of three-year-olds spend four hours a day in front of a screen

More than a quarter of three year-olds in the US are spending up to four hours a day in front of TVs, smartphones and tablets, exceeding doctors’ recommendations by four-fold, according to new research.

New research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that nearly all three-year-olds in the US are staring into blue light for more than the recommended hour a day, and 79 percent of them are already exceeding that limit by age two., 

Screen time trebles from an average 53 minutes when they are one to just over 150 minutes two years later.

For 27 percent it soars to an astonishing 240 minutes – four times the amount health experts say is safe for mental development, and potentially fueling 

And compared to children in daycare centers, those looked after at home by either a parent, babysitter or relative were more than twice as likely to have high levels of screen time.

Between ages two and five, US doctors recommend kids spend just an hour with screens – but by age three, 25 percent are staring for four hours a day, NIH research reveals (file) 

‘Our results indicate screen habits begin early,’ said corresponding author Dr Edwina Yeung, an epidemiologist at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland. 

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, is based on almost 4,000 youngsters in the US who were tracked up to the age of eight.

In April, updated international guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) advised a maximum of an hour a day for toddlers and young children.

Dr Yeung said that, at age seven, the participants’ screen time fell to 77 minutes due to them having started school.

But their amount of exposure was ‘still associated with habits set at a much earlier age.’

Those most prone to too much screen time were in home-based childcare or born to first-time mothers.

Children whose parents went to university were less at risk – as were girls rather than boys. 

‘These results suggest possible target groups for interventions on children’s screen media use,’ Dr Yeung said. 

It could help doctors identify vulnerable youngsters based on a number of factors – including gender and their parents’ education. 

‘This finding suggests interventions to reduce screen time could have a better chance of success if introduced early,’ added Dr Yeung. 

Her team analyzed data from the Upstate KIDS Study that is following children born through infertility treatments in New York State from 2008 to 2010.

Dr Yeung said: ‘For instance, although New York has implemented policies prohibiting infants’ screen exposure in daycare centers, these regulations are not yet present nationwide and may aid in decreasing children’s screen time.’

Looking at screens for hours may be damaging children’s intelligence, sleep, mental health and vision, say experts.

It’s also been linked to a much higher risk of behavioral problems – such as ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Disturbed sleep was the focus of a warning from the UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health earlier this year.

It recommended children don’t use screens before bed. The RCPCH said high levels of screen time are linked to a less healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and poorer mental health.

Now Dr Yeung and colleagues have shown potentially harmful levels of use begin as early as infancy.

Questionnaires were sent to the mothers of 3,895 children when they were aged 12, 18, 24, 30, and 36 months.

They reported the average number of hours or minutes per day their child spent watching TV shows and movies, and playing computer games.

When the children were seven and eight the women did the same again. For each time point, the three screen activities were added together to obtain the total.

The researchers compiled additional demographic information on the mothers and children from birth records and other surveys.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says children under 18 months of age should be denied screens and then introduced to them slowly – with an hour a day limit between two and five.

Almost nine-in-ten (87 percent) of the study participants exceeded these recommendations. They were split into two groups based on how much their average daily screen time increased from the age of one to three.

Almost three quarters (73 percent) in the first had the lowest increase – from an average of nearly 51 minutes a day to almost an hour and 47 minutes.

The other 27 percent had the highest – from nearly 37 minutes of screen time to about 4 hours.

Dr Yeung said: ‘Higher levels of parental education were associated with lower odds of inclusion in the second group.

‘In addition, girls were slightly less likely to be in the second group, compared to boys, while children of first-time mothers were more likely to be in the high-increase group.’

The researchers also classified the children into percentiles based on their total daily screen time.

Children were also more than twice as likely to be in the highest ten percent for their amount of screen time if their parents did not go to university.

This risk was almost as high for children of first-time mothers. Twins were also more likely to belong to this group.

Dr Yeung said: ‘These findings suggest that a range of parental and child characteristics are associated with screen time.

‘Screen time habits appear to track from as early as infancy, emphasizing the need for earlier interventions.

‘Concern about screen time of young children has grown in recent years. Screen media exposure for children younger than two to three years has been documented to negatively affect child health and development.’

She added: ‘Future prospective studies among this age group are needed to confirm our classification of children’s screen time trajectories and their determinants.’

The UK’s four chief medical officers have also advised banning phones from bedtimes and mealtimes.

They have been blamed for fueling the obesity crisis with almost a third of two to 15 year-olds overweight.

Children aged three to four years old should spend at least 180 minutes being physically active, including 60 minutes moderate to vigorous intensity, and sleep for 10 to 13 hours, says the WHO.

Sedentary screen time should be no more than one hour for those in this age group, and ‘less is better.’ 

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