Psychology: More than an hour a day of screen-time increases toddlers’ risk of behavioural issues

Spending more than an hour a day watching programmes on devices may increase the risk that toddlers will have emotional and behavioural issues, a study has warned.

These issues include hyperactivity, poor concentration, short attention spans and trouble connecting with other children and forging friendships.

The researchers have speculated that devices are reducing the time that children spent reading, playing and interacting with family, other kids.

This, is turn, may impact their social and emotional development, they suggest, with such depending on the interplay between social learning and environmental factors.

Certainly, patterns of electronic media use by children are changing rapidly — with studies showing that many 4-year-olds now regularly use smartphones and tablets.

In fact, studies have suggested that the use of devices by preschool-age children has tripled between just 2013 and 2017.

Spending more than an hour a day watching programmes on devices may increase the risk that toddlers will have emotional and behavioural issues, a study has warned (stock image)

The study was conducted by social scientist Janette Niiranen of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki and her colleagues.

‘Our results show that 5-year-old children spend considerably more time on e-media than is recommended by professionals,’ the researchers said.

‘High levels of e-media use, especially programme viewing, are associated with problems with psychosocial outcomes, while use of electronic games was only associated with hyperactivity in the crude models.’

‘Although children’s e-media use patterns might not seem problematic when considering use on a daily level, they do have risks in the long term.’

In their work, the researchers analysed data collected by the Finnish ‘CHILD-SLEEP’ study, which has been monitoring the health and psychological wellbeing of 699 children from before birth to the age of five by means of parental questionnaires.

As part of the study, parents were asked to report how much time their child spent using electronic media — including watching television and playing games on computer, console, smartphone or tablet — at both 18 months and 5 years.

And at age five, each child was assessed for emotional and behavioural issues including short attention span, hyperactivity, and difficulties making and keeping friends. 

At 18 months old, the toddlers were found to spend an average of 32 minutes of each day on electronic media device — a figure which had increased to 114 minutes daily on average by age five. 

Furthermore, the researchers reported that nearly a quarter of all children spent more than one hour a day watching screens at age 18 months, but by age five this level of device use was found across 95 per cent of the toddlers.

At age five, 67 per cent of kids watched television programmes for more than one hour a day and around one-in-ten spent the same time gaming.

Experts have recommend that pre-schoolers spend no more than 60 minutes using electronic media on a daily basis.

Looking at the emotional and behavioural assessments, the team found that extended use of electronic media at age 18 months was associated with a 59 per cent increase in the risk of developing peer relationship problems by the age of 5.

At age five, extensive time spent gaming was initially found to be associated with a heightened risk of hyperactivity — although this was found to disappear when confounding factors were taken into account.

However, lengthy consumption of television programmes was found to increase the risk of attention and concentration difficulties, hyperactivity and impulsivity, and other emotional and behavioural problems.

The researchers cautioned, however, that the observational nature of the study mans that they have been unable to establish a causal link between screen time and the behaviour issues.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal BMJ Open. 


A recent study by San Diego State University found that the happiest teenagers were those who limited their daily digital media time to slightly less than two hours a day.

After this daily hour of screen time, unhappiness rose steadily with increasing screen time. 

Looking at historical trends from the same age groups since the 1990s, the researchers found the proliferation of screen devices over time coincided with a general drop-off in reported happiness in American teenagers. 

Study participants born after 2000 were less satisfied with life, had lower self-esteem and were unhappier than those who grew up in the 1990s.

Since 2012, the average teenager’s life satisfaction, self-esteem and happiness has plummeted.

That year marked the point when the proportion of Americans who owned a smartphone rose above 50 per cent for the first time.