(Paris) The time spent by children in front of screens partly affects their development, but these effects are limited and depend above all on the way in which children are exposed, according to a large study published Wednesday.

It is “the context in which screens are used and not only screen time (which) plays a role in the cognitive development of children,” conclude the authors of this study, carried out under the aegis of Inserm and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The overexposure of children to screens – computers, smartphones, televisions – has given rise for several years to a wave of alarmism among several political leaders as well as some caregivers who see it as a serious threat to the point, for some, of evoking a link with autism.

The scientific consensus, however, is much more measured. The study by Inserm (the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research) joins other work which puts into perspective the problems linked to the use of screens itself and places them in place in a broader context.

This is a “cohort” study, a type of work that allows for very strong conclusions to be drawn. A large group of people – here 14,000 children – are followed there for years.

The researchers assessed these children at three ages: 2 years old, 3 1/2 years old, and then 5 1/2 years old. They conclude that there is a “limited” link between the use of screens and their intellectual development.

Certainly, “at ages 3.5 and 5.5 years, screen exposure time was associated with poorer overall cognitive development scores, particularly in the areas of fine motor skills, language, and autonomy”, details Inserm in a press release.

“However, when lifestyle factors likely to influence cognitive development were taken into account […], the negative relationship was reduced and became of low magnitude,” continues the organization.

In other words, it is not so much the presence of screens that influences the child’s development as when and how the child looks at them.

For example, the children studied seemed to suffer significantly from frequent family television watching during meals.

“Television, by capturing the attention of family members, interferes with the quality and quantity of interactions between parents and child,” says epidemiologist Shuai Yang, lead author of the study, in the press release. study. “However, this is crucial at this age for language acquisition. »