The study also suggests that many parents are frequently clueless about the content their young children are accessing through those mobile devices.
The data for the study was collected before the coronavirus pandemic, which has led many parents to relax their rules about screen time. The findings may therefore be even more applicable today.
“We found that most parents miscalculated their children’s time on mobile devices. They may also not be aware of what content is being shared or what apps are being marketed to children while they’re using their devices,” says Dr. Jenny Radesky, the study’s lead author and a developmental behavioral pediatrician and researcher at the University of Michigan, in a released statement.
Surveys have shown that up to 75 percent of young children have their own tablets, and many also play games or watch videos on their parents’ smartphones. Attempts to assess whether the excessive use of these devices has an effect on children’s health (such as sleep problems, obesity or problem behaviors) have been limited by a lack of precise ways to measure that use. Researchers have had to rely on parents’ recall of their child’s use, but those reports can be inaccurate.
To overcome that problem for the current study, Radesky and her colleagues developed an app that uploaded mobile usage information from Android devices to a secure database. They also developed a system by which parents with Apple devices could send screenshots of their devices’ data to the researchers. In both cases, names were masked, and no personal information was collected.
“We wanted to develop an approach to more accurately and objectively measure young children’s use of mobile technology,” explains Radesky.
The researchers recruited 350 families with preschoolers (children aged 3 to 5) to take part in the study. The children’s parents agreed to let the researchers track and collect their child’s mobile device data for nine months during 2018-2019. The parents also completed a questionnaire in which they estimated the amount of time their preschoolers spent with mobile devices.
The usage data revealed that the 121 preschoolers in the study with their own smartphone or tablet averaged two hours of viewing a day. Almost 60 percent of them averaged an hour or more a day, and 15 percent averaged four or more hours a day.
The children played with the devices on most days, picking them up about four times per day, on average. They used them the longest on Fridays and Saturdays. A few played with them far into the night — as late as 3 or 4 a.m. Most of those middle-of-the-night viewings involved YouTube sites.
The researchers then compared the data from the parents’ estimates with the children’s actual use. More than a third of the parents (36 percent) underestimated the amount of time their preschooler spent with a smartphone or tablet. Interestingly, another third (35 percent) overestimated the time. Parents in both groups tended to be off by an average of 70 minutes.
Individual preschoolers accessed between one and 85 apps during the course of the study. The most commonly played apps were YouTube, YouTube Kids and streaming video services such as Netflix. The children also frequently used web browsers and the camera and photograph gallery features on the devices.
Some of the preschoolers, however, accessed apps aimed at teens and adults, including gambling apps such as Cashman and violent apps such as Terrorist Shooter and Fortnite. These viewings usually occurred on devices the children shared with other family members.
“We were surprised to find that some of the content these young children were exposed to were for ages 17 and older,” says Radesky.
“Parents may have the misconception that children are always engaging with programs that are more age appropriate or educational,” she added.
Limitations and implications
The study comes with important caveats. Most notably, it couldn’t identify the actual user of devices the preschoolers shared with others. Also, the study had a relatively high level of attrition, and the parents who stayed in the study to its end tended to be more highly educated and less racially and ethnically diverse than the general U.S. population.
In addition, parents in the study were aware that their child’s mobile device usage was being tracked, a factor that may have changed how they permitted their child to use the devices.
Still, the study offers a more objective measure of young children’s mobile device usage than previous research that relied on the reports of parents.
What should parents do to make sure their children’s use of mobile devices is age-appropriate?
“Have some boundaries about when and where the tablet can be used, carve out time for open-ended activities and social interaction with the family and poke your head in to see what your child is watching,” Radesky told CCN reporter Sandra LaMotte.
“Try playing a few of the games, and if they are inappropriate, uninstall them. Google Family Link and Apple Screen Time both allow parent controls, too,” she added.