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Why Wait for a Diagnosis to Make Amends: Effects of Excessive Screen Time on Child Development

Kids watching the screen
Children and screen time

Over the decades, technological advancements have made our lives easier and more convenient. From having lengthy conversations with the family across the globe, to Alexa answering all our questions, its benefits have been infinite. Unfortunately, along with all the boons of technology, we haven’t been able to escape its impact due to our increasing dependency and its intrusion into our lives affecting our overall family & social dynamics, with our children bearing its most brutal brunt.

We all fondly remember our early childhood memories of grandma stories, dining table conversations, picnics and outdoor play with neighbours and friends, and social gatherings where we engaged in friendly banter with aunties and uncles. These very activities taught us social etiquette, group behaviour, language, conversational skills, and the art of negotiation, which have been instrumental in developing our personalities.

Unfortunately, it’s disheartening as a speech-language pathologist and a mother to see parents hand over gadgets, at social gatherings, public places, and even at home at the slightest tantrum of the child stating they are bored and need to be engaged!

As a professional working extensively with children, I have observed especially post-COVID, that the number of concerned parents approaching us with children not speaking, communicating, and showing a lack of engagement with people and the environment has considerably increased.

Repercussions of Excessive Screen Time

Unlike assessments we did pre-COVID, noticing the increase in gadget usage in children, gathering information regarding screen time exposure has now become a part of our assessment protocol. Upon reviewing clinical data we found that nearly 75-80% of parents reported exposing their children to regular screen time for prolonged durations.

Further, young children who had been exposed to prolonged hours of screen time were reported to have certain behavioural and developmental features similar to ASD (autism spectrum disorder), ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and SPD (sensory processing disorder). Some of these include:

  1. Inability to engage in age-appropriate play with toys and people, follow instructions, share joint interests with parents and siblings and effectively communicate their needs. It is also noticed that they are unable to sustain attention and focus and have a constant need to shift activities.

  2. Delay in achieving gross and fine motor skills such as jumping, running, climbing, self-feeding, and scribbling.

  3. Poor response to name calls and maintaining sustained eye contact.

  4. Fear of certain sensory experiences such as walking on sand, swinging, touching certain textures of food.

  5. Disturbed sleep patterns.

  6. Temper tantrums or meltdowns on gadget removal.

Although screen time may not be the cause, it substantially contributes to and stagnates the process of neurological and biological development or further aggravates an already existing delay. For children whose primary contributing factor is exposure to screen time, we have observed tremendous improvement upon initiating intervention and completely curbing screen time.


A study was conducted by the National Institute of Health on children who spent more than two hours a day on screen. These children scored less on thinking and language skill tests. Besides, it was observed that the brain’s cortex was thinned for children who watched the screen for more than seven hours a day. The thinning of the cortex can have detrimental effects on attention, memory, thinking, learning, emotions, behaviour, language and speech production.

Golden Age of Development

It is important to note that 90% of a child’s brain development takes place before the age of 5, mostly through imitation, exploration, and interaction. Further, 0-5 years can be considered the “golden age of development” as the brain is transforming and making innumerable neural connections based on environmental stimulation, which aids in multi-dimensional growth in the areas of social, emotional, cognitive, speech, motor, language, feeding, and literacy skills.

If the child is handed a gadget during this important stage, it could have a detrimental effect on various areas of growth, as the two-dimensional screen limits the understanding of our 3-dimensional world. So, it’s a parental misconception that their young child is getting smarter and learning faster by watching an educational video. A child learns to perform a task (such as stacking blocks) not by watching but through trial and error and interaction with the actual objects. Therefore, parents must limit screen time and replace it with meaningful play.

Effects of Excessive Screen Time on the Development of the Child

Speech and Language Skills

Several parents who come to our clinic, often regret handing over gadgets to their little ones. From infancy to preschool age, maximum speech and language development takes place through reciprocal and interactive behaviour. Children learn to speak by listening to their family talk, sing, and interact with them.

They carefully observe the facial expressions and movement of the articulators and subsequently learn the speech sounds, intonation (rhythm), and accent of their regional languages.

When a child is exposed to rhymes and videos through gadgets, there is passive or one-way interaction where the child is deprived of listening to natural speech which may affect speech clarity. Some may even develop unnatural accents of characters they watch on screen.

Language development entails comprehension, vocabulary development, and understanding of sentence formation and grammar. Play is the biggest contributor to language development in the initial stages of life, as it entails interacting with real objects and books - helping children learn the association between words and their real counterparts, along with constant engagement through conversations.

When a child spends their early years on the screen and less time interacting with humans, this could have negative effects on the timely acquisition of language skills.

Social and Academic Skills

Social etiquette, group behaviour and social communication skills (greetings, requesting, seeking permission, commenting, maintaining a topic, taking turns during a conversation, and so forth) are skills acquired through interaction and observation of others in different social settings.

If children are constantly engaged in screens, they miss learning this essential part of human interaction. Further, if they don’t have opportunities to rehearse this skill often, some may develop anxiety/fear when required to communicate amidst groups.

Academically, children could have shorter attention spans and find it difficult to concentrate and focus on learning, affecting their overall performance in school.

Cognitive and Play Skills

Cognitive skills comprise of thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving which improve via sustained focus, trial-and-error with puzzles, cause-and-effect toys, household items and listening to stories. 

However, when children get adapted to the increased pace of visuals on the screen, they find playing with toys and other items boring and slow paced. They lack interest and often exhibit behavioural issues like anger, and throwing tantrums for immediate replacement by gadgets.

Feeding Skills

Child eating while watching the screen
Child watching the screen while eating

Good feeding skills are instilled in children during family meal time, as the child watches others enjoy their food. When a child is fed while watching a screen, they are not actively involved and tend to resist self-feeding and touching foods of certain textures.

Further, some children may develop unhealthy eating habits due to inability to judge hunger and fullness, along with prolonged meal times (tend to pocket food while watching screen).

Sensory and Motor Skills

Through evolution, humans have developed and regulated their senses (smell, taste, vision, hearing, touch) and motor skills through exploration and movement (climbing, running, swinging, jumping) across various terrains. This has provided opportunities to experience and feel multiple textures through nature. 

As screens have made children more indoor beings and reliant on single-touch technology, lack of exposure to such surfaces along with hygiene concerns has made children fearful of different sensory and motor experiences.

What is the Ideal Screen Time?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), screen time should be avoided for children below the age of 24 months. For pre-schoolers, between the ages of 2 to 5 years, one hour or less screen time per day of educational and interactive content is recommended. Children from 5 to 17 years should limit their screen time to two hours in a day. Except for homework that requires a gadget once in a while, screen time should not exceed two hours per day. 

Guidelines for Parents

Technology is unavoidable but how we expose our children to it is completely our decision.

• Be good role models. Avoid using gadgets during meals, outings, and family time.

• For young children plan and carry along activities to keep them engaged.

• Do not undermine the child’s cognitive abilities and involve the child in appropriate family discussions and decisions.

• Adopt a structure at home where there are certain times of the day when the entire family keeps their gadgets away. 

• Set limits of gadget usage along with the child using visuals and timers. Also, provide one or two gentle reminders as the child approaches the time limit set by them.

• Ease the younger children from the screen steadily by diverting their attention to other fun activities.

All it takes for healthy growth and consistent development is a home and environment where there is positive interaction through play along with gadget-free interaction. Do not expose your child to so much screen time that you ultimately have to seek out professional help. Instead, make the little changes, spend quality time, and do not wait for a diagnosis to make amends!



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