The World Health Organization recommend that children between the ages of 2 and 4 should only be spending up to 1 hour on screens each day. But in this digital age, it can often be much more than that.
One reason for this extra screen time may be the short-term convenience. It can distract children, keep them quiet and stop them from doing other things you don’t want them to be doing. But how does this affect their developing brains?
One recent study gives us a better understanding of how using devices to keep young children busy can impact their social and emotional learning. Let’s take a closer look at what the research says, and what that means…
What is Social and Emotional Learning?
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the development of self-awareness, self-regulation, responsible decision making and interpersonal skills.
For younger children, this is an essential component of their development as they start to figure out who they are and learn how to manage their emotions. As well as helping them develop positive relationships with others, SEL has been associated with improved academic outcomes.
What the research says
So, how do screens impact social and emotional skills? The study followed 422 parents and children across 6 months to measure how using mobile devices to calm down young children impacted their behaviour. The researchers also looked at how the children’s behaviour influenced whether their parents used mobile devices to calm them down.
They found that using devices for calming was associated with higher emotional reactivity 3 months later, specifically for boys and for children who were excitable in nature. Essentially, it found that the short term win of calming them down had negative affects long term. They also found that increased use of mobile devices for calming was associated with children being more reactive.
Overall, the research shows that when children exhibit more hyper behaviours, parents and guardians often resort to using mobile devices to calm them down. This trend goes both ways, as the increased use of these devices appears to influence more reactive behaviours in children.
So, what does this mean?
The research suggests that consistently using mobile devices to keep young children satisfied may not be the best approach, especially when they have a more energetic character. This is because they need the support of their parents or guardians to help them develop self-regulation skills.
So, using mobile devices to calm down emotional outbursts or energetic behaviour simply distracts children instead of teaching them practical strategies they could use to regulate their emotions better.
As a result, this could stunt their social and emotional development in the long run – not to mention the fact that it creates a negative cycle. Reactive behaviours from children encourage parents or guardians to give them more screen time, which elicits more reactive behaviours from their children, and so on.
What to do instead
So, what can you do instead of giving your child a mobile device when they are displaying challenging behaviour? We’ve highlighted some activities that you encourage them to try…
Creative activities help young children to express themselves in non-verbal as well as verbal ways. So, encouraging younger children to partake in creative art forms can help them monitor their emotions.
Research has shown that when students partake in different art forms, they can improve on a range of social and emotional characteristics, such as collaboration and conflict management. Another study that investigated 3-4-year-olds found that partaking in music lessons showed an improvement in their planning and inhibition skills, which are executive functions that are essential for developing self-regulation.
- Physical activity
Keeping children active is not only good for their overall health, but it is also helpful for developing social and emotional learning.
One study looked at the impact of martial arts on behaviour and found that young children who engaged in the programme improved in various self-regulation skills, prosocial behaviour and classroom behaviour. They also had improved performance on a Maths test.
- Guided play
Guided play is when adults gently influence children’s playtime to achieve a learning goal and can be an enjoyable substitute to screen time. The role of parents and guardians is to prompt play, for example by asking children open-ended questions to support a specific learning goal. This could look like giving your young child blocks and asking them how many they are holding in their hands to incorporate counting into playtime.
Research has shown that guided play can be just as effective as traditional teaching when it comes to numeracy, literacy and SEL. So, engaging children in play-based learning is a triple win – they learn, have fun and develop socio-emotional skills!
Even though technology continues to be a staple part of society, excessive screen time can potentially hinder the development of essential social skills in young children for the long term. The above study was correlational, not causation (we await further research to see if this is the case), but in it's current form certainly offers plenty food for thought.
Whilst we wait for those further studies, in the meantime it is probably prudent to incorporate new activities into their routine and put in place screen time boundaries. This can help achieve a healthy balance and open children up to more than just what their screens have to offer.