Preschoolers who spend more time staring at cellphone or laptop screens are less likely to perform well on development screening exams when they turn 3 years old, according to a recent study published on JAMA Pediatrics. The research looked into the screen habits and cognitive development of kids who spent two to three hours per day on a gadget.

In the paper titled “Association Between Screen Time and Children’s Performance on a Developmental Screening Test,” scientists from the University of Calgary evaluated children and mothers from their larger “All Our Families” study using an Ages and Stages Questionnaire. This screening tool looked at measures of development such as problem-solving skills, motor skills, communication and personal social skills.

The researchers found that children aged 2 to 3 years who spent two to three hours a day staring at a screen showed delays in meeting developmental milestones, like stacking a toy on top of another or speaking. Sheri Madigan, the first author of the study, likened the use of gadgets to feeding small kids junk food, noting that it has negative consequences when given in excess.

baby on cellphone
Pictured: A baby plays with a mobile phone while his twin brother drinks juice. Getty Images/Sergei Supinsky/AFP

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children 18 months and younger should avoid screen time except for video chatting, while kids aged 18 to 24 months should be accompanied by a parent and exposed only to high-quality programs to help them understand what they are viewing. The AAP also recommends that children aged 2 to 5 years should use gadgets only one hour per day, while those aged 6 years and up should be given consistent limits. The agency insists on the role of parents or guardians in ensuring the quality of the shows viewed and the enforcement of time limitations.

In an article on Child Mind Institute, learning specialist Susan Schwartz said that motor activities should take priority over screen time, even if it involves an educational app. When children use their bodies to explore and react to the things around them, the visual and tactile input to their brains is more significant, compared to swiping objects on the phone. Subjecting young kids to multi-sensory experiences boosts their level of engagement and cognition. While giving children screen time so that parents can do other things is fine, if families want a truly holistic learning experience for their kids, they will need to physically be with them, regardless if its a non-screen or with screen activity.