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Avoid screen time before school: Study

A toddler is using a smartphone at the breakfast table
Credit: iStock.com/lolostock

Screens may seem like the ideal solution to getting through the morning school-prep mayhem of packing lunches, scrambling breakfast together and getting everyone dressed, but a French study has found that screens in the morning before school can negatively impact a child’s language ability.

Dr Manon Collet, a general practitioner and co-author of the study, explains that, “Children who were exposed to screens in the morning before school were three times more likely to develop primary language disorders”.

This is a language disorder that has no identifiable cause as opposed to where the child has a condition, such as hearing impairment, which would account for the language disorder.

The study defined screen time as a visual contact with a screen, without it necessarily being used for an extended period.

“In addition, we found that children who rarely or never discuss the screen’s content with their parents were twice as likely to develop primary language disorders,” adds Dr Collet.

“We also found an accumulative effect, if a child participated in screen time in the morning and didn’t discuss what they viewed with their parent, the combination of the two increased the risk by approximately six-fold.”

The interaction between the child and their parent on what they viewed is really important for the child’s psychomotor development, especially when it comes to their language development.
Dr Manon Collet

How morning screen time impacts children

“Exposure to screens in the morning before school exhausts a child’s attention, making them less able to acquire knowledge and learn for the rest of their school day,” explains Dr Collet.

She explains that studies have shown that when children pay attention to a screen, their attention does not require conscious effort and in fact, excites and exhausts them.

“Studies reported that when children were paying attention to a screen, they responded to a primary attention reflex (bottom up) which is not a deliberate intention of commitment (top down),” she says.

“The latter allowed children to carry out necessary tasks for learning, while the former one excited and exhausted them.”

In Australia, morning screen time is common among young children.

The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children found that children aged four to five years old were more likely than older children to be using screens on weekday mornings. 

“Our study demonstrated that the time of the day, in the morning before school, was linked to the risk of language delay, but other studies have also demonstrated the link between language delays and the time spent on screens, first exposure to screens at an early age and viewing inappropriate content,” adds Dr Collet.

“Educational content seems to be less likely to increase language delays than other content for example.

“Passive screen watching seems to be more of a risk than interactive screen watching.”

The Australian recommendations for time spent on screens is a maximum of one hour per day for children between the ages of two and five years old, with under twos having no screen time.

Dr Collet notes that the second finding of the study demonstrated the importance of parent involvement in screen time.

“We uncovered the importance of parents discussing the screen content with their child,” she says.

“The interaction between the child and their parent on what they viewed is really important for the child’s psychomotor development, especially when it comes to their language development.”

Dr Collet says that the study did not demonstrate a link between primary language disorders and screen time at other times of the day, however, it cannot be concluded that these links don’t exist.

“In saying that, other studies have established a link between, for example, exposure to screens in the evening before bedtime and sleep disorders, or even exposure to screens during meals and the risk of obesity,” she says.

How can parents minimise these effects?

Dr Collet explains that while there is no ideal time in the day to expose a child to screens, they have become a part of daily life.

“We need to avoid moments that have been demonstrated as a risk to the health and development of children,” she says.

“These moments are in the morning before school as it risks to excite and exhaust a child’s attention, in the evening before going to bed so as not to alter the quality of their sleep and during meals which must remain a moment of conviviality and sharing.”

Dr Collet emphasises that it is important for parents to be active in their child’s screen time, similar to how they would read a book with their child.

“It’s important to discuss the content displayed on the screens,” she says.

“Firstly, to avoid them being inappropriate for the child’s age or sensitivity, but above all, to maintain interaction between children and caregivers which is necessary for children’s development.”

Author, speaker and academic Dr Michael Nagel explains the five key components for parents to consider when determining the value of using a screen device or app:

  1. Screen time should be engaging and focus on a single activity, rather than shifting the attention from one thing to another.
  2. It should be more than just swiping or tapping on the screen, but rather a 'minds-on' activity, for example, where children choose which story characters to further a story line.
  3. The screen time should have some educational learning goal.
  4. Children should be engaging in content that expands their current knowledge to create new understandings.
  5. Parents should engage with their child’s screen time use, for example a parent discussing with a child what they are watching on television.