Concerns over the use of digital media by children have grown over the past decades. Early childhood represents a sensitive time in development because of the rapid pace of environment-dependent neurogenesis that occurs. 1 The development of brain networks that support learning and language depend on children experiencing high quality stimulation from their caregivers.2,3 Diets rich in digital media run the risk of displacing time for more enriching activities. Research indicates that digital media use by young children is associated with developmental delays and later academic and social difficulties.4,5 Furthermore, research has linked unhealthy media habits in early childhood to reduced white matter integrity in brain areas that support language and the control of attention.6
Over the past decade, the popularity of mobile devices (tablets, mobile phones) has been steadily increasing among young children.7 Despite the rapid proliferation of digital media, there has been limited research on use by young children.8 The use of mobile devices is likely to differ from the use of more traditional media (i.e., watching television shows and movies), in several ways. Mobile devices are more interactive and provide sensory motor stimulation through the use of touchscreens. Indeed, research suggests that mobile devices are most frequently used to play games.9 A recent study suggests that the use of mobile touch screen devices (i.e., smart phones, tablets) can compromise social development by diminishing preschooler’s capacity to take the perspective of others, a competence known as theory of mind.10 Given that mobile device use may be associated with specific risks to development, it remains important to better understand how use may have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to fostering neuropsychological risk, sedentary behavior in early childhood is a positive predictor of sedentary behavior through middle childhood.11 By adolescence, heavy screen media use (more than 3 hours a day) is associated with obesity, and a reduction in healthy HDL cholesterol, and high blood pressure.12-14 Furthermore, some research has found that two hours a day of screen is enough to have a negative effect on insulin levels.15 As such, understanding and preventing heavy screen time use early on is likely to have protective effects across childhood and adolescence.
Beyond excess screen time, the timing of media use is also of concern. The blue light emitted by screens can interfere with melatonin production and circadian rhythms.16,17 Research has specifically linked nighttime screen media use to decreased sleep quality and higher risk of neuropsychological problems such as reduced theory of mind.18
Organizations preoccupied with the health and wellbeing of children recommend that preschool-aged children between the ages of 2 and 5 be exposed to no more than 1 hours of digital media per day. Furthermore, it is recommended that children not be exposed to digital media the hour before bedtime. 19-21 Prior to the pandemic, many preschool children exceeded the recommended healthy allowance of 1 hour a day of screen time for 3-5-year-olds while bedtime usage rates are less well known.21-22 Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the winter of 2020, public health related restrictions have significantly reduced opportunities for real life social, educational, and leisure activities. As such it is not surprising that child digital media exposure has increased significantly among children and young people 18 years and younger.23
The individual and family characteristics which contribute to patterns of media use, remain largely unexamined. Child sex and age are likely to impact child exposure to media. Research suggests that older children spend more time with digital media.24 Furthermore, boys spend more time in front than girls.25-26 Research has also found that preschoolers temperamental characteristics in terms of extraversion and negative affectivity are associated with screen use by age 5 and that temperament and family risk are likely to interactively contribute to child media use.27 Indeed, more challenging or difficult toddlers typically spend the most time in front of screens.28-29 this may lead to a transactional process by which fussier toddlers, due to greater media exposure, receive reduced amounts of time for socially enriching activities, further contributing to poor self-regulation, and in turn more media exposure.
Parental monitoring strategies may also contribute to young children’s digital media use. Previous work has identified three types of parental mediation of their child’s media use. These include: 1) restrictive mediation, which involves setting rules and limits on child media activities; 2) instructive or active mediation which involves discussing the content of media with children; and 3) social co-viewing, which involves the shared viewing of media without discussing its content.30 There is some evidence that less educated, lower income families, and parents with less confidence in their digital media skills are more likely to use restrictive types of mediation.25 Research with school-aged children suggests that restrictive mediation is most effective in reducing digital media exposure.31 Co-viewing has also received attention as a promising strategy for maximizing the positive outcomes of media use and reducing its potential risks,32 while instructive mediation has been linked to improved learning from educational media.33
Related to mediation style, parents own media use is also likely to influence child habits. The interference of technology in parent-child relationships, a phenomenon known as technoference, has been linked to reductions in the frequency and quality of family interactions.34 Research also suggests that the amount of time parents spend with digital media is associated with media use of 5 and 6-year-olds.35 The extend to which parental media use and their mediation strategy may contribute to preschool children’s is not well examined. Children in more disadvantaged families are likely to spend more time with screens, which may then result in more vulnerabilities in their school readiness.36 Finally, the larger social context in which families find themselves is also likely to influence child media use. Research has also found that COVID-19 related changes in the availability of childcare, family resources, and family distress are related to increases in family media use.23
The objective of the present study is to better understand young children’s digital media use during the COVID-19 crisis. We aim to describe patterns of risky media use that include spending upwards of 2 hours/day with digital and media use the hours before bedtime. We also examine how child (i.e., age, sex, temperament) and family characteristics (parental mediation style, parental screen time, education, income) and contextual features of the pandemic (ex., remote work, daycare closure, shared childcare) are associated with media use by children.