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Children and Digital Media

Screens may hinder preschooler emotion regulation

Sherbrooke, le 09 février 2023 – Tantrums, emotional outbursts, frustration, and mood swings in preschoolers are sometimes a daily occurrence for parents. Are screens a good way to calm them down quickly? Not really, this practice may very well make things worse in the short and long term.

At least that's what a recent study by the research team led by Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick, Canada Research Chair in Children's Digital Media Use, reveals. While screens may seem like an easy way to calm children, they have a measurable impact on their ability to regulate their emotions.

The study conducted with 3.5- and 4.5-year-olds during the pandemic highlights the importance of families establishing rules surrounding screen use. As a likely result of the pandemic, the children in the sample were exposed to levels of screen time that exceeded the pediatric recommendations of 1 hour per day, with media consumption as high as 3.46 hours per day.

The study also tells us that every hour spent in front of a screen at age 3.5 predicts an increase in anger and frustration at age 4.5.

Indeed, the research findings suggest that preschoolers' consumption of screen-based content may impair their ability to successfully regulate the negative effects of emotions, a crucial determinant of children's personal success and lifelong mental and physical health.

"Parents need to be informed that heavy use of digital media can have a significant impact not only on their children's physical health, but also on their ability to effectively manage their emotional responses over the long term," says Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick.

Developing skills to manage emotions

Previous studies have already shown that screens are not a good solution to calm an upset child. In fact, over time, the use of screens by parents can undermine children's ability to develop their own ways of dealing with distressed or angry emotions.

As youngsters, children rely on adult support for emotional regulation, but opportunities to practice emotion regulation with other children can help them improve this skill. The problem is that excessive screen time can reduce time for emotion regulation building activities, such as pretend play, storytelling, social play with other children, or physical activity.

Tools for parents

The research also suggests that parental supervision, such as setting limits on screen time and choosing educational content for children, and even discussing media with children can have a long-term protective effect on them. The research team states that, considering that digital media use has increased during the pandemic, it may be particularly important and timely to provide parents with effective tools to better manage this activity with their children.

Several strategies exist to support families in their management of screen time, according to Marie-Andrée Binet, a master's student collaborating on the study.

"Health professionals recommend the creation of a family plan that specifies the rules and limits of screen use for each member of the family and that preserves moments without the distraction of screens, such as meals or bedtime routine. The Pause ton écran organization also offers toolkits and tips on how to manage screen use, improve habits, find alternative activities, and set an example of healthy screen use for children," adds Marie-Andrée Binet.

Work is on-going with the sample of 315 Nova Scotia children and more results on the impact of screen use by young children and their parents during the pandemic on the development and health of children, will be released in the coming months.

About the study

The Preschooler screen time and temperamental anger/frustration during the COVID-19 pandemic study was conducted by Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick in collaboration with her master's student Marie-Andrée Binet, UdeS professors Gabrielle Garon-Carrier (psychoeducation) and Mélanie Couture (medicine), and professors Elizabeth Harvey (Université Sainte-Anne) and Rachel Barr (Georgetown University).

Professor Fitzpatrick is leading the Nova Scotia Media use Study (NSMUS), a longitudinal study (2020-2023) that aims to better understand the impact of screen use by young children and their parents on the health and development of young children. To date, this study has received $780,272 in funding from Nova Scotia Research, SSHRC and CIHR.

Quebec organizations Pause ton écran and  Naître et Grandir and also La Pirouette in Nova Scotia are partners in the project.

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Geneviève Lussier, Media Relations Advisor
Communications Department | Université de Sherbrooke | 819-821-8000, ext. 65472

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