Children who spend significant amounts of time on screens are more likely to suffer declines in emotional wellbeing, and the level of harm has increased in more recent times, according to a new Irish study.
While some digital activities such as gaming, educational engagement and socialising were found to have "small and insignificant effects" on young children, the consumption of media such as Netflix, YouTube or other content was more likely to prove harmful, the research found.
The study, by sociologists Melissa Bohnert and Dr Pablo Gracia at Trinity College Dublin and published in the Child Indicators Research journal, is the first to look at two cohorts of children to form a comparative analysis on effects.
They looked at the experiences of nine-year-olds in both 2008 and 2018, drawing on data from the ongoing Growing Up in Ireland research initiative.
The paper, Emerging Digital Generations?, is the first examination of how digital technology use affects socio-emotional wellbeing and how these impacts have changed across two recent cohorts.
Key among the findings are how the duration and type of screen engagement affects children.
Negative outcomes associated with high levels of screen time on child mental health were more severe for the younger generation – those born in 2008 – compared with those born in 1998.
Spending more than three hours a day either on digital devices or watching TV is linked with “important declines” in child mental health, including hyperactivity, self-regulatory problems or disruptive behaviours. Moderate amounts of time were not found to have as detrimental an effect.
“Spending time in media activities like watching YouTube videos, other videos or downloading apps has detrimental effects on child mental health, especially when these activities do not involve socialising with others,” the authors told The Irish Times.
“Other digital activities, like doing homework or searching information on the internet, have neither positive nor negative associations with children’s mental health outcomes.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found a marked shift in how children are engaging with screens, particularly in the context of evolving content and social media.
It noted a “marked decrease” in those saying they used digital technologies for educational purposes, falling from 56 per cent among the 1998 cohort to just 17 per cent 10 years later.
By contrast, children who reported engaging in media activities such as watching YouTube or streaming movies and music jumped from 28 per cent to 89 per cent.
“This significant increase in digital media use may be explained by the proliferation of music and video-streaming platforms (eg Netflix, YouTube, Spotify) over the last decade,” the study noted.
Habits changed, too, in line with technology. The researchers found that in the 1998 cohort, 73 per cent of children spent over an hour watching TV, dropping to just 48 per cent in the 2008 sample. By contrast, digital screen-time of more than an hour rose from 13 per cent to 28 per cent.
“These findings indicate that children are moving away from traditional TV screen-time and supplanting it with time spent on digital technologies,” particularly mobile phones and tablets.
Mobile phone ownership at the age of nine similarly increased from 61 per cent in the 1998-born cohort to 78 per cent in 2008-born cohort.
The overall findings of the study tend to mirror those of previous work looking at children born after 2008. This is the first cohort to grow up entirely after the launch of smartphones to the popular market.
The research is part of a €3.5 million EU-funded project, Digymatex, examining the short- and long-term impact of children's digital engagement across different demographic and socio-economic groups.