Children are using mobile media more often and at early ages than ever before, and parents are unsure how to manage. A new study reveals that parents want more guidance from pediatricians on the best ways to expose their children to media.
As screen time and the use of mobile devices increases among younger children, pediatricians are revisiting their recommendations on usage but a new report suggests there is more work to be done.
A recent study found that children are starting to use mobile devices earlier; having access their own devices at a younger age; and spending more time that ever in front of screens. The key to managing this increased use, according to the report, is to develop better guidelines of usage for parents.
The study involved 350 children aged 6 months to 4 years seen over a period of 1 month at an urban, low-income, minority practice. At well and sick visits, parents were asked to complete written questionnaires about their child’s media use.
Matilde Irigoyen, MD, lead author of the study and chair of the department of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, says the results of the study were not surprising, but left a door open to additional research.
“We were not surprised to see infants and toddlers using the mobile devices-we saw that in the clinic every day-but we were very surprised to see how often the children used the mobile devices; how many of them owned a personal device; how many could use the device without assistance; and how many engaged in media multitasking,” Irigoyen says. “These findings can be used as a catalyst for additional discovery on the impact of mobile media in young children and their families. Access to, familiarity and skill using mobile devices are the first steps in achieving digital literacy. However, socialization with parental engagement and modeling are critical for the development of healthy and productive ways to integrate digital technology into family life.”
Overall, Irigoyen found that children are using mobile devices more than before, more independently, and at younger ages than in the past. Lower costs to purchase media devices and increased availability may be playing a role in the uptick in usage, but cultural change also plays a major role, too, as society in general becomes more dependent on mobile media use.
Nearly all of the households (97%) had televisions; 83% had tablets; 77% owned a smartphone; 56% owned video game systems; 58% owned computers; and 59% Internet access, according to Irigoyen’s study. The report found that by age 4 years, half of the children had their own television and 75% had their own mobile device. Child ownership of mobile devices increased with age, starting at age 2 years and increasing so about 50% of children had their own televisions; 75% had their own mobile devices; and 30% had tablets by age 4 years.
Even those children that did not have their own mobile device know how to use them-96.6% used mobile devices by age 4 years, and most had started before the age of 1 year, according to the report.
By age 2 years, most children in the study used some type of mobile device daily, and spent comparable time watching television. Netflix and YouTube were some of the most popular applications used by the children in the study. Researchers found that children were using mobile devices mainly to play games, watch videos, communicate, take pictures, and use other applications.
By the age 3 and 4 years, most of the children in the study were using mobile devices without any help, and a third of them engaged in media multitasking-which has been linked to task inefficiency in both children and adults.
According to this report, children in the study group spent about 45 minutes daily watching television; 27 minutes daily watching shows or videos on a mobile device; 22 minutes using apps on mobile devices; and 15 minutes playing video games. While television screen time remained consistent as the children got older, the study found that mobile device screen time increased with age.
The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) previously recommended no screen time for children aged under 2 years, and no more than 2 hours a day of screen time in children aged over 2 years. Times have changed, though, and AAP updated its recommendations in September, stating that no screen time is impractical since the advent of tablets and other devices that are a part of daily life and provide education benefit. The AAP says the average child now spends roughly 7 hours a day using some type of entertainment device, and recommends avoiding television and entertainment media in children aged under 2 years and providing “screen free” time in older children. When entertainment media or screen time are offered, programming with educational or enriching content is recommended, according to AAP.
Not all screen time is created equally, though. Seventy percent of parents reported giving their children mobile devices to keep them occupied while they did household chores; 65% say they used mobile devices to keep their children calm; and 29% reported using mobile devices to put their children to bed. The report also noted that some parents are using mobile devices as “digital pacifiers,” to calm, reward, or punish their children.
The statistics in this report are significantly different than those from recent years. A 2011 survey estimated that mobile device usage among children aged under 2 years increased by 10% by 2013, and mobile device use in children aged 0 to 8 years increased by 38% from 2011 to 2013 to 72% usage.
Household ownership of tablets doubled since 2013, according to this report. The study authors note that in 2013, ownership of tablets by children was in the single digits, “reflecting the pervasive nature of digital technology.”
The study also found that while television screen time has decreased since 2013, mobile device usage has quadrupled in the children aged 2 to 4 years polled for this study.
Despite growing use of mobile devices, the study references and earlier report in which parents say although they used mobile devices as a tool for managing their daily lives, they did not believe they made parenting any easier.
There is little known about how the use of mobile devices impacts a child’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, according to the report. Researchers have found, however, that when parents are engaged in media use with their children, it enhances the impact of educational content, according to the report. The study also cites a 2013 survey that found parent engagement accounted for a third of the time spent on mobile devices among 2- to 4-year-olds.
“Parents are seeking anticipatory guidance on the use of media for their children, and additional research is needed to develop recommendations in this area,” according to the report.
The authors suggest that lower income parents, in particular, want guidance on media usage for their children, and say more research is needed into what the best possible recommendations are, as well as how to disseminate that information to parents.