21 December 2021

That children have spent more time on digital media during the pandemic isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, according to a researcher from Linköping University, a very important factor is what they do when they are there, and if they have company.

Child and parent reading from an ipad

 During the pandemic, many children have spent more time at home, which can equate to more screen time. Researchers at Linköping University wanted to investigate what children between four and six years of age have been doing on their devices during this period, and whether their parents were involved.

“We often get stuck in a discussion about screen time and hours – but what does that actually mean? Yes, it can be a concern, but it’s really about what they do when they’re using their devices. And the same applies to us adults, actually”, says Annette Sundqvist, associate professor at the Child and Infant Lab at Linköping University. She studies how children’s development is affected by digital media.

Parental presence improves child learning on digital media

The study participants were 240 parents of children between four and six years of age. These parents assessed that their children’s screen time had increased during 2020 .

The parents estimated that their children played  on a device three times as much as before the pandemic, on average 3.5 hours a week. And this was the activity where the parents’ engagement  was the lowest: two of three parents didn’t take part when their child played. Photo of Anett Sundqvust, Associate Professor in Psychology.Anett Sundqvist, Associate Professor in Psychology Photo credit Anna Bäcklin Lindén

“Our previous studies showed that digital media can adversely affect the behaviour, language and memory of small children, but that this can be weighed up by the parents participating in the children’s activity. This study shows that children play digital games alone, often without their parents’ active participation. This could indicate that this digital activity does not support the child’s learning in the same way as an activity where a parent is actively involved”, says Annette Sundqvist.

The screen-based activity that increased the most for the children during the pandemic was the video call. These calls increased by 77 per cent, corresponding to one hour a week, on average.

Yes, it can be a concern, but it’s really about what they do when they’re using their devices.
Anette Sundqvist

 The children also watched more TV during the pandemic – almost 40 per cent more. They spent on average almost 11 hours a week in front of the TV. But here the parental engagement was high: three of five parents often or always took part in their child’s TV viewing, by explaining what was going on or by pointing out when a character’s behaviour was not good.

Parent’s device use can hamper child’s learning

In a study published in March 2021, Annette Sundqvist showed that a lack of attention from the parent affects the child’s learning. In this case she studied how the child is affected when the parent uses their phone during interaction with the child.

“The parents signal that they’re not paying attention to the children, or not interested in what they’re doing. Also, the parents’ focus on their devices means they are not always available to put words to what the children are trying to learn about the world, or to interpret and confirm their emotions. This can impact the child’s linguistic development and behaviour”, says Annette Sundqvist.

The studies:
Digital media content and co-viewing amongst Swedish 4- to 6-year-olds during COVID-19 pandemic. Annette Sundqvist, Mikael Heimann. Acta Paediatrica. Published online 1 September 2021 https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.16090

Growing Up in a Digital World: Digital Media and the Association With the Child’s Language Development at Two Years of Age. Annette Sundqvist, Felix-Sebastian Koch, Ulrika Birberg Thornberg, Rachel Barr, Mikael Heimann (2021). Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 1 https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.569920 


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