Preschoolers' extensive use of electronic media, including gaming consoles, mobile phones, and tablets, is linked to a heightened risk of emotional and behavioural problems, finds new research. The research has been published in the online journal BMJ Open.
This behaviour is associated with hyperactivity, short attention span, poor concentration and peer relationship issues, among other things, the findings suggest.
Patterns of children's electronic media use are changing rapidly, state the researchers. Preschoolers' use of mobile phones and tablets tripled between 2013 and 2017, with recent studies indicating that many 4-year-olds now play games, use apps, or watch videos daily.
Concerns have been raised that young children's extensive use of electronic media may impede healthy development, affecting language and social skills, as well as potentially fostering addictive behaviour.
The researchers, therefore, wanted to find out if extensive electronic media use among young children might affect their psychological health and wellbeing by the time they reach the age of 5, and if different types of activity might be influential.
They drew on participants in the Finnish CHILD-SLEEP longitudinal birth cohort study, which has regularly tracked children's health and/or psychological wellbeing from before birth (32 weeks) up to the age of 5, via parental questionnaires.
The final analysis included 699 children (333 girls; 366 boys) for whom complete health and questionnaire data was available from the age of 18 months onwards. Parents reported how much time their children spent on electronic media at 18 months and 5 years of age, both during the week and at the weekend.
Parents were specifically asked how many hours their child watched programmes on television or other devices, and (at 5 years) for how many hours their child played games on a computer, games console, mobile phone, tablet or another device. The responses were used to calculate a daily average for programme watching, game playing, and total screen time.
At 18 months of age, the toddlers spent an average of 32 mins per day on electronic media devices. By the age of 5 this had increased to 114 mins per day. By this age, more than two thirds (67 per cent) watched programmes for more than an hour a day and around 1 in 10 (11 per cent) spent more than an hour a day gaming. This is alarming as maximum recommended daily use of electronic media for preschoolers is 60 minutes.
When the children were 5, validated questionnaires (FTF and SDQ) were used to assess the prevalence of 'psychosocial symptoms': emotional and behavioural issues, short attention span, hyperactivity, and difficulties making and keeping friends.
The time children spend on electronic media most probably reduces the time spent interacting with family members, reading, and playing, suggest the researchers. And at an early age, children's healthy social and emotional development depends on a dynamic interplay between social learning and environmental factors.
"Our results show that 5-year-old children spend considerably more time on e-media than is recommended by professionals. Our results further indicate that high levels of electronic media use, especially programme viewing, is associated with problems with psychosocial outcomes, while the use of electronic games was only associated with hyperactivity in the crude models," state the researchers. "Although children's e-media use patterns might not seem problematic when considering use on a daily level, they do have risks in the long term."