Digital devices such as smartphones and tablets are ubiquitous to the extent that their use by pre-school children has become an everyday occurrence. It is quite commonplace to see parents utilising these devices as pacifiers and/or entertainment instruments when they are shopping, visiting friends or family or even when they need to work from home during the pandemic.
A recently published study in the Journal of Early-Childhood Research, reports on the detrimental effects of such ubiquitous use of digital devices during the pre-school years.
The research followed 422 children who were using digital devices regularly over a 4 year period, from the time they were 4 to the age of 8. As a result, this longitudinal study is one of the first of its kind providing us with insight into the effects of digital device use by pre-school children in terms of academic and emotional development at ages 6 and 8 years respectively (when they typically go from kindergarten to primary and from grade 2 to 3 respectively).
The researchers specifically looked at the effects of digital device use that exceeded the recommendations by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), which for this age group is no more than 1 hour of high quality content access per day. The specific focus of the research was on both the academic (Mathematics and literacy) and emotional impact of digital device use at ages 6 and 8 by using standardised rating scales which the children’s teachers had to complete for each child.
The results of the study show that more than 1 hour of screen time a day has the following consequences:
At 6 years it has a negative impact on their emotional development although their academic achievement still seems above the normal threshold
At 8 years old both their emotional development as well as their academic achievement are negatively impacted
Academic achievement in Mathematics and Literacy were substandard for these children
Children exhibited emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, social problems, rule breaking, etc. (Although the latter was not of a clinical nature - i.e. children did not need the help of a psychologist yet, these symptoms were still prevalent enough to be noticed by and known to their teachers)
The study makes it clear that parents should take the AAP recommendations regarding screen time seriously if they want to ensure that it does not impact negatively on their children later causing them to suffer both emotionally and academically. It is also noteworthy that the positive academic results at 6 years old could lead to a false sense of complacency, serving to counter the emotional issues children are experiencing already by then. This will mask the negative effects of too much screen time, so that when things seem to “go wrong all of a sudden” at age 8 - it seems like it is coming out of the blue, - when in fact it is a direct result of digital screen time.
This research confirms that parental involvement is crucial while children use digital devices to ensure you prevent or at least negate their negative effects. Best practice in this regard is therefore as follows:
Limit screen time to 1 hour of quality content per day, as per the AAP recommendations
Where the 1 hour limit is exceeded - the active involvement of parents in the use of devices (holding the devices, explaining what is happening, asking questions about the content, etc) is crucial to mitigate the negative impact of extended use.
In conclusion, digital devices should never be used as pacifiers or entertainment devices to “keep pre-school children occupied” while their parents or caretakers are busy elsewhere. The negative effects will not be immediately clear, but will impact them later when they can least afford it - in Grades R to Grade 3 - which is the foundation to the rest of their schooling.