Screen Time Associated with Increased Inattention and Hyperactivity and Lower Language Scores in Young Children

September 13, 2022

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no independent screen time (i.e., digital media use) for children younger than age 2, and no more than one hour per day for children 2–5 years of age. These guidelines are based on research indicating that children who engage in less screen time generally have higher language and developmental scores.  

Most prior screen time research has involved the general population. However, children with developmental delays and those with behavior problems may be the most vulnerable to the negative impacts of excess screen time. That’s because screen time may replace  developmentally beneficial interactions. 

A recent study in our lab examined screen time in 36-month-old children at increased likelihood for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), language delays, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) due to family history. The sample also included a comparison group of children with no family history of neurodevelopmental conditions 

Parents reported how much time their child spent watching television programs, movies, streamed media content or YouTube videos. Children received assessments in the laboratory to evaluate their behavior and language development. Based on these, children were grouped into three categories: ASD diagnosis group, elevated ADHD symptom group, and Comparison group (any children who did not meet criteria for the other two groups) 

Results showed that, on average, children in all groups exceeded the daily recommended screen time guidelines of one hour per day. Children with increased symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity had the most screen time, with an average of 2.33 hours per day. In addition, more screen time was associated with lower expressive and receptive language scores in all groups, including the comparison group who showed no signs of either ADHD or ASD symptoms.  

Because our study evaluated behavior at a single time point we cannot determine the cause of the associations. Some parents may wonder if allowing their child to watch television or videos at an early age may cause ASD or ADHD.  A causal association between screen time, ASD and ADHD is not indicated in prior research or in our study. More research is needed to understand whether increased screen time contributes to language delays, inattention, and hyperactivity, or if children in these groups engage in more screen time for other reasons (e.g., preference for visual input, parental viewing habits, sleep habits, etc.).  

Our results do indicate that the negative associations found between screen time, language development, and inattentive/hyperactive behaviors demonstrated in community samples of children in previous studies are also evident in children at risk for neurodevelopmental conditions. Our findings provide additional support for the AAP’s current recommendation to limit screen time in young children. 

3 year old children were studied in 3 groups: autism diagnosis, ADHD symptoms, and neither autism nor ADHD.  All groups had more than recommended screen time.  Children with more inattention and hyperactivity had more screen time.  They also had lower language scores.  The root cause is still unknown, and this could be correlation.  Children at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders had a negative association with screen time.