The impact of screens in early childhood – New research

Published on Tuesday, 08 June 2021
Last updated on Monday, 07 June 2021

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New research from Deakin University raises questions about the appropriateness of using portable screens in early education settings.

According to the research, young children who spend large amounts of time on mobile screens are more likely to have problems sleeping and managing their emotions and behaviour.

PhD researcher Sumudu Mallawaarachchi and Dr Sharon Horwood from Deakin University's School of Psychology found that the more time toddlers and pre-schoolers spend on smartphones and iPads, the greater risk of negative impacts on their social, emotional, and cognitive development and sleep quality and quantity.

Ms Mallawaarachchi said the results of their recent study reveal the harms caused by prolonged use of mobile screens is likely to outweigh any perceived benefits for toddlers and pre-schoolers.

"Our research reviewed all the relevant national and international studies looking at developmental factors and mobile screen use in early childhood," Ms Mallawaarachchi said.

"The findings so far indicate that toddlers and pre-schoolers who use mobile screens more often and for longer periods of time are more likely to have problems managing their emotions and behaviour and getting poorer quality sleep.

"But we also discovered huge gaps in our knowledge around the long-term impacts of mobile screen use in young children revealing the need to look more closely at the impacts of things like types and reasons for screen use by young children," Ms Mallawaarachchi said.

The research team has launched a new research project which involves a national survey of parents of toddlers and pre-schoolers and the screen use in their homes.

Dr Horwood said that given their portability and web-connectivity, mobile screens may have a completely different impact on development compared to older screen technologies such as televisions.

"For example, we know that at least half of toddlers and pre-schoolers who use mobile screens use them on their own, so to understand how to manage screen use in early childhood we need to know more about how kids are using screens now," Dr Horwood said.

"Overall, the negative findings are quite worrying given the wide use of educational apps that are available and considered beneficial for young children.

"We need further research exclusively on the impacts of mobile screens, instead of combining them with other types of screen use.

"Until we have better understanding of the impacts, parents should probably err on the side of caution with early childhood screen use. Given how critical early childhood is in terms of the vast amounts of brain development that occurs, the sooner we can establish healthy habits and lifestyle behaviours, the less challenges young children are likely to face as they develop," Dr Horwood said.

This study also raises questions about what we’re doing in our schools and early childhood centres here in New Zealand,” said Michael Vaughan, spokesperson for Safer Technology Aotearoa New Zealand (STANZ) to Scoop.

“Are we doing young children any favours using iPads and laptops in these settings, particularly as they are often having extensive screen time at home?”

Vaughan, who is also a Registered Psychologist specialising in work with children, added: “We know from research that children’s brains are developing at a tremendous rate in their early years. These are the ‘golden years’ – children benefit hugely from having a range of experiences and interactions during this time.

France has banned wi-fi in their early childhood centres and restricted its usage in primary schools. We really need to consider carefully what is best-practice, so that our children achieve their full potential,” he said.

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