Don’t Misjudge Your Child’s Screen Time

Child using phone

Nearly three fourths of parents misreported preschoolers’ mobile technology use; some children ages 3-5 engaged with apps intended for teens and adults.

Some parents may have relaxed on screen time rules during quarantine. But even pre-pandemic, many likely misjudged how much time their young children were plugged into mobile devices, or how they were spending that time, a new study suggests.

Using a novel tracking approach, researchers found that parents often misreported preschoolers’ use of digital technology – and some children ages 3-5 engaged with apps intended for teens and adults.

During our research, 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. Parents should develop an approach to more accurately and objectively measure young children’s use of mobile technology.

Based on our research, among 350 children ages 3-5 for a nine-month period between 2018 and 2019.

The 121 preschoolers with their own smartphones or tablets averaged two hours of viewing a day while over half used devices for an hour or more, including 18 (15 %) who spent at least four hours on digital technology. A few of these children also had devices running into the middle of the night, as late as 3 or 4 a.m., usually on YouTube.

And those measurements didn’t always match parents’ reports, with just a third accurately reporting children’s mobile screen time use. About 37% of parents underestimated their child’s screen time, and 35% overestimated their child’s screen time, with most being off by an average of 70 minutes.

Children used between one and 85 different apps. The most commonly used apps among three and four year olds were YouTube and YouTube Kids, followed by browsers, the camera and photograph gallery, and video streaming services such as Netflix.

However, some children also used apps not designed for them, including those related to gambling, violent games and general audience apps that may not place restrictions on the data they collect or distribute to third-party advertising companies.

Parents may have the misconception that children are always engaging with programs that are age appropriate or educational.

Up to 75% of young children are estimated to have their own tablet, and many infants start handling mobile devices before age one, previous research suggests.

But measuring children’s screen time in the digital age has been limited because it often relies on parents’ recollections of how children used devices. Without reliable measurement tools, it’s more difficult to study how mobile technology use may be associated with children’s health, including sleep, obesity and behavior issues.

Mobile technology is used on demand, sometimes in small bursts through the day and takes us to this immersive place. Those features may make it more difficult to track how much time we’re spending on them compared to watching TV for example.

One of the main limitations of the app used to track data is that it cannot identify the user of shared devices, this is important in early childhood when many children do not have their own phones or tablets. But the tool brings researchers a step closer to getting a better picture of what screen time looks like for children growing up with modern media.

The more meaningful the data, the better we can understand how digital technology is impacting children’s growth and development.

Advertising in Kids’ Apps More Prevalent Than Parents May Realize

Ninety-five percent of reviewed apps for children ages 5 and under include at least one form of advertising.

Ninety-five percent of commonly downloaded apps marketed to or played by children 5 and under contain at least one type of advertising.

Researchers found play was frequently interrupted by pop-up video ads, persuasion by commercial characters to make in-app purchases to enhance the game experience and overt banner ads that could be distracting, misleading and not always age-appropriate.

Some ads were particularly deceptive: Familiar commercial characters would appear on-screen to remind players that paying for certain in-app upgrades and purchases would give them access to more appealing options and make the game more fun.

Banner ads covering the sides or top and/or bottom of the screen during gameplay were also present in 17 percent of all apps and 27 percent of free apps. Some banners promoted adult-appropriate apps that required a user to watch the full promo before a box could be closed.

While some of the permissions were likely requested to allow certain functions during play, authors point out that collecting data on a child’s location is a potential violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Understanding your child’s screen time will make a big difference, most importantly, introducing the practice of cyber wellness will help them stay mentally healthy and focused with their education.

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