We have noticed that parents sometimes hesitate to seek professional help for their child and their family. In our culture, contacting a psychologist or a psychiatrist is sometimes seen in a negative light. Parents may be judged by others that something is wrong with them or with their child, that they are unable to solve the problem themselves, and similar. Such attitudes may cause the parents to feel shame and resistance, they may develop anger towards their child who 'causes problems' and parents may start taking their child's psychological difficulties personally.
At the time of our grandparents, it was only a TV set, and only for those who could afford it. Today, there are so many screens around us that professionals cannot count them. That is the reason why the expression Screen Time has been introduced. It is the total time someone spends in front of a screen, be it a TV set, laptop, PC, mobile phone, tablet, video game console, or something else. Besides the time we spend in front of screens, we are surrounded by them all the time, whether we want it or not. Screens around us overwhelm our everyday lives with screen saturation, which is another important notion in this study area.
Many researchers have dealt with young children spending time in front of TV screens, many have also dealt with older children in front of other screens. However, it is difficult to find papers which take into account preschool children and their time in front of screens, while we see that they play games and watch movies on their tablets every day.
What is it that determines Screen Time and screen saturation in preschool children? How much time, when, how and why young children spend time in front of screens? What is the role of parents and other adults involved in child care and education? How is Screen Time related to developmental outcomes?
These are the questions, among others, which we are trying to answer in our study systematically conducted for the past two years.
The Brave Phone and the Child and Youth Protection Centre of the City of Zagreb conducted national study in kindergartens in Croatia during 2016 and 2017. The study is about young children in front of screens. We are thankful to all kindergarten directors and professionals who opened their doors and helped collecting data. We are also most thankful to parents who diligently and patiently filled in our questionnaires and invested their time, energy and trust into our research. The results we are presenting are based on answers from 655 pre-school children parents.
Who are our participants?
Cohort of 655 parents or other carers from rural and urban areas and various parts of Croatia, chosen by the convenient sample method, participated in the study. They filled in a series of questionnaires about children’s and parent’s habits in using modern technologies and about their child development. Questionnaires were applied by especially educated Brave Phone volunteers, students in the helping professions.
Questionnaires were filled in by mothers in 80%, by fathers in 19% and by grandparents or other adult persons close to the child in 1%. They were aged 22 to 59, while most were in their mid-thirties (parents). Children covered by the study were 18 months to 7 years old, with 53% of boys and 47% of girls.
More than 90% of children live with both parents. Almost one third of them are single children. Others have 1 to 4 siblings often sharing their rooms (almost 40% of children).
Parent and child together time
Although on workdays 87% of parents spend more than 4 hours with their children, half of them are satisfied with the amount of time they spend together. Parents would like to spend more time with their children. However, the quality of time is also important. Every third parent believes that the quality of their time spent with children is deteriorated with work they bring home, while 40% of parents believe that work induced stress negatively impacts on the time they spend with their children.
Almost all families with pre-school children own a TV set, mobile phone and a PC. Tablet is present in 85% of households with pre-school children, and video game consoles are present in 65% of the families.
All of almost 700 pre-school children, as reported by their parents, use at least one electronic device – modern technologies are used by all of them. TV is watched by 97.2% of children, while two thirds of children use a mobile phone and a tablet. Around 60% of children use personal computers, and video games consoles are used by every fourth child – they are least represented of all.
On workdays, 60% of pre-school children spend two or more hours in front of TV, while at the weekend as many as 72% of them do that. The picture shows average Screen Time for children of different ages and the percentage of children of certain age who have more that two hours of Screen Time per day. The values which are higher than recommended maximum of time in front of the screen are in red.
Average screen time
Children still spend most time in front of TV, more at the weekend than on workdays. Every fifth child watches TV more than two hours on workdays and every third child does that at the weekend. Around 15% of children play at the video game consoles, most of them one hour per day.
What they have learned
Children are more than just passive receivers of information – they actively search for content which is interesting and attractive for them. As many as 97% of them can switch on an electronic device, 90% of them independently search for and start desired contents, 77% of them take photos and record contents by mobile phones, while 45% independently use the Internet.
Sleeping and eating by the screen
Every third child, at least sometimes, uses some electronic device during meals, 90% of children use electronic devices before sleep, which is contrary to paediatric recommendations. One out of ten children often or always uses electronic devices during meals, and 41% of children often or always use them before sleep.
Why parents allow their children time in front of screens
Around 50% of parents provide screens for children to have fun and to focus their attention. More than one third of parents consider electronic devices useful for their children’s learning, while some believe that children will better fit in their peer groups if they use modern technologies.
Around half the parents cannot estimate whether electronic devices are harmful or useful for their children. One third of parents estimate them more harmful, while 17% estimate them more useful.
Parents themselves use screens a lot, both at work and in their free time. Parents being the model for their children, research show that parents’ and children’s Screen Time are closely related. Parents from our sample also use social networks.
Research link Screen Time and Green Time. Children from our sample spend their time in organised outdoor activities and in front of screens in equal proportions. It is important to emphasise that some parents include outside time organised by the kindergarten as Green Time. Results show that parents like to ensure that their child spends more outdoor time at weekends, when they have more free time to organise that as they want.
Organised sports activities are available at the place where they live to 85.5% of children and are attended by half of them. Playrooms are available at the place where they live to 83.2% of children with a half of these children participate. Foreign language schools are attended by every third child to whom they are available. It means that if parents are offered additional activities for their pre-schooler, one third of them will take the child to these activities.
Almost half the pre-school children participate in two or more organised activities
Sports activities, learning foreign languages, participating in playgroups and similar will better contribute to pre-school children’s development. However, generally speaking, pre-school children mostly need unstructured, spontaneous and free play and quality time with their parents. If some activity is offered, it does not mean it is the best for the child, and parents are often pressurised by offered activities. Some even say they feel bad as mums and dads if they do not provide for their child everything they can. Observe and listen to them, play with them – that is the best you can offer them at their age.
Rules, supervision, relationship: How they regulate Screen Time
One fourth of parents do not set any rules related to their pre-school children’s use of electronic devices. Every tenth parent never or rarely tells his/her child what s/he is allowed to watch. Some parents set rules only about TV, some only for other screens, and the rules mostly apply to total Screen Time. Some parents reward their children with extra minutes of Screen Time, while some punish them with reducing Screen Time. Rules related to the contents on the screens are set less frequently, although it is often much more important than total Screen Time.
Regardless of limited time, children use modern technologies without supervision.
At least sometimes…
The supervision reported by parents may mean various levels of parental involvement. Thus 40% of parents are always present, but only 30% follows the contents of what the child is watching, and 11% of parents always watch the content with their children.
It is of utmost importance to be with the child and show him/her appropriate behaviours by example, to get involved in the child’s world.
Almost every fifth parent reports that s/he never or rarely watches the content with the child. After the child has watched something on TV, one fifth of parents never or only sometimes talks with the child about what s/he has watched. Talking with the child is very important. By using open questions parents can instigate critical thinking and support the child in contemplating and making choices.
Every fourth parent installs recording software and programs blocking inappropriate contents. Almost 20% of parents do not know what the former are nor whether they have them installed, while 12% do not know about the latter. It is important to be informed about these possibilities and to use them in order to protect children. No parent can always be present, and it is good to take care of child’s safety when s/he is absent.
We are planning more complex analysis of the presented data in order to check modern models of Screen Time and child development in the pre-school children population. We will also implement the results in our everyday work, practical, publishing and educational activities, in order to help in providing optimal conditions for our youngest children’s development. Providing quality information to parents is of utmost importance, so that we can guide them in one of the new parenting challenges of our times – their young ones in front of screens.