The present study examined PEL differences in home sedentary behaviour environment among 3–6-year-old children. Furthermore, we studied how home sedentary behaviour environment associates with children’s SED and whether these associations are influenced by PEL. High PEL was associated with a home environment promoting less sedentary behaviour compared with low PEL. Of all examined home environment factors, parents’ descriptive norms regarding children’s screen time, considering it important to limit a child’s screen time, and parental satisfaction about their child’s screen time were associated with children’s SED. Some of the associations with home environment factors and SED were influenced by PEL.
Several PEL differences in home sedentary behaviour environment among preschool-aged children were apparent. Higher-educated parents were more likely to emphasize importance of limiting children’s screen time, spent less time looking at screens when their children were present and expressed descriptive norms corresponding with official recommendations about the suitable amounts of screen time more often than less-educated parents. They also performed less psychological control to limit their children’s active playing compared to less-educated parents. Parents’ use of screen devices in the presence of their children was quite low, but we did observe PEL differences: the less-educated reported spending more time watching television or using other screens in their children’s presence, both on weekdays and during weekends. This supports the findings reported by Tandon et al. (2012) in the Australian context that lower-SES parents watch more TV/DVDs with their under school-aged children than higher-SES parents do. Contrary to the previous studies examining SES differences in the home environment of school-aged children (Tandon et al. 2012; Dumuid et al. 2016), we found no differences in the number of accessible screen devices among pre-schoolers according to PEL.
In the present study, children’s higher SED associated with more favourable parental descriptive norm about screen time, a factor that has previously been associated with children’s higher screen time (Carsson & Janssen 2012). Children’s higher screen time has also been linked with higher number of screen devices in the household, whereas no association between the number of accessible screens and SED, measured with an accelerometer, was found (Dumuid et al. 2016) – a non-significant association confirmed in our study as well. These results indicate that although screen time and objectively measured SED might share some common associates, some distinctions can be made. In addition, some further social home environment factors can be considered potentially important for children’s SED. Lower SED was measured, for example, when parents perceived that limiting their child’s screen time is important. Even if not reaching statistical significance, parent’s own higher screen time in the presence of their child related with children’s higher SED (p=.059).
An essential aspect describing social home sedentary behaviour environment is having rules that limit children’s screen use. Therefore it is not surprising that higher SED has been reported among children whose parents have less such rules (Tandon et al. 2012). In our study, however, having rules limiting children’s TV time associated with children’s lower SED only in the high PEL group. Some further dissimilarities with other studies were also apparent. Higher SED has been documented among those children whose parents promote inactivity, whereas lower SED was more common among children whose parents pursued more psychological control (O’Connor et al. 2014). We, on the contrary, did not find any relations between promoting inactivity or psychological control with children’s SED per se. The association of children’s SED and psychological control was, however, influenced by PEL. This means that although the association between psychological control and children’s SED was also non-significant in the PEL-stratified analyses, the direction or the magnitude of the associations differed by PEL: low PEL group showing a tendency towards positive association, and middle and high PEL groups towards a negative association. It is possible that although some factors are not yet related with SED among pre-schoolers, over time differences in the social and physical home environment play part in the formation of PEL differences in SED. Therefore, already child health centers and preschools could aim to communicate to parents that although psychological control might be based on understandable concerns on a child’s safety, especially low PEL parents should still encourage children to be physically active.
Very few studies have examined the moderating effect of parental SES on the association between home environment and sedentary behavior among young children. Östbye et al. (2013) did not find a moderating effect of educational level on the association between home environment (accessibility of physical activity equipment, role modelling of physical activity, parental policies in support of physical activity) and SED. We examined other factors in the home environment, which may explain why PEL in our analyses influenced the associations of certain factors in the home environment with SED. As in the study by Östbye et al. (2013), we did not find a moderating effect of PEL on the association between parental role modelling and children’s SED. This result contrasts a previous Finnish study (Matarma et al. 2016) in which SED of highly educated fathers was associated with children’s lower SED, whereas that of lower-educated fathers showed no association. We can only hypothesize, whether the differences in the results are due to, for example, the younger age of the children in the present study: parental role modelling could be more important determinant for children’s SED among older children, then also enabling more variation based on PEL to be found. Since we used the PEL and role modelling information of the parent who answered the questionnaire, we were not able to examine role modelling of the mother or father separately.
Strengths and limitations
The strength of the present study is the inclusion of a wide range of social and physical factors at home when examining their associations with preschool children’s sedentary behaviour and, moreover, PEL differences in these associations. Due to the extensive nature of the data collection for the DAGIS study, we had to ensure that participation in the study did not become too burdensome. Thus, we could only include a limited number of potential determinants of SED. The present study brings new insights on the linkage between home environment and SED, as well as on PEL differences in it, among an age group that has received only moderate attention, since previous studies have mainly concentrated on school-aged children. These findings also indicate that it might be necessary to pay attention to those factors that seem to be more relevant to SED in low-PEL families. Both child health centres and preschools could stress those factors in their communication with parents. Universally distributed information would not single anyone out, but could benefit the most those families, whose home environment is less favourable EBRB improving.
A major weakness of the present study is the low participation rate of the families (24%). We have no information of non-participants and cannot therefore correct for the low participation rate. This means that the results have to be interpreted with caution, since we cannot rule out the possibility of SES-dependent or less health-conscious non-participation, which would bias our results. Therefore, our results may present the EBRB-related home physical and social environments in a more positive light than in reality. The participants do not represent the whole Finnish population, but we have placed great emphasis in including participants with a variety of SES and other background factors by recruiting both urban and rural municipalities from different parts of the country and with relatively large SES differences within the municipalities. Although many of the questions assessing the home environment were adapted from previous studies in Western countries, they were not applicable in the Finnish context and had to be modified. The benefit of these adjustments is that the questions have been easier for the parents to answer, but comparing the results with other studies is not straightforward. This also applies to the constructs: we left out some items included in the original constructs (Carson & Janssen 2012, O'Connor et al. 2014) due to their perceived irrelevance in Finnish context. This might have resulted in lower Cronbach’s alphas and therefore weakened the likelihood of establishing reliable results, especially for the construct indicating parental promotion of inactivity. Since the majority of the parents who filled in the questionnaire were mothers, it might be that our results are not generalizable to fathers. Future studies should, however, pay more attention in actively recruiting fathers to gain knowledge whether paternal and maternal impact on children’s SED differs. In addition, the impact of other sociodemographic factors such as marital or employment status could be important factors to pay attention to.
A previous study of the DAGIS survey showed no PEL differences in the SED of children (Määttä et al. 2017a). This is rather surprising in light of our current study results, since the home environment for children with high PEL seems to be more favourable compared to low PEL families. Among the same children participating in the DAGIS study, screen time was higher among children with low PEL compared to high PEL (Lehto et al. 2018). Moreover, the impact of PEL on children’s screen time was mediated by descriptive norms for children’s screen time, parental screen use in the presence of their children, parental opinions on the importance of limiting children’s screen time and the societal pressures felt by parents for letting children use electronic devices (Määttä et al. 2017b). One reason, why PEL differences existed in children’s screen time but not in SED, may be that the questions on home environment related to sedentary behaviour mainly focused on screen time and not on other sedentary behaviours among children such as drawing, listening to reading, etc. The absence of questions related to these other sedentary behaviours can be seen as a weakness of our study.