Children’s extensive electronic media use linked to emotional and behavioural issues
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Children’s extensive electronic media use linked to emotional and behavioural issues

by Freya Lucas

March 22, 2021

Preschoolers’ extensive use of electronic media, including game consoles, mobile phones and tablets has been linked to a heightened risk of emotional and behavioural problems by the age of five years, researchers from Finland have found


Challenges with hyperactivity, short attention span, poor concentration and peer relationship issues, among other things, have been linked with excessive screen time in the findings.


Preschoolers’ use of mobile phones and tablets tripled between 2013 and 2017, with recent studies indicating that many four-year-olds now play games, use apps, or watch videos on them every day, and patterns of children’s electronic media use changing rapidly. 


Concerns have been raised that young children’s extensive use of electronic media may impede healthy development, affecting language and social skills, as well as potentially fostering addictive behaviour.


As a result, researchers wanted to find out if extensive electronic media use among young children might affect their psychological health and wellbeing by the time they reach the age of five years, and if different types of activity might be influential.


Research methods


They drew on participants in the Finnish CHILD-SLEEP longitudinal birth cohort study, which has regularly tracked children’s health and/or psychological wellbeing from before birth (32 weeks) up to the age of five years, via parental questionnaires.


The final analysis included 699 children (333 girls; 366 boys) for whom complete health and questionnaire data were available from the age of 18 months onwards. 


Around two thirds of the children (68 per cent) were in full-time day care; nearly two thirds of the parents (64 per cent) were educated to degree level.


Parents reported how much time their child spent using electronic media at 18 months and five years of age, both during the week and at the weekend. 


Parents were specifically asked how many hours their child watched programmes on television or other devices, and (at five years) how many hours their child played games on a computer, games console, mobile phone, tablet or other device. 


The responses were used to calculate a daily average for program watching, game playing, and total screen time.




At 18 months of age, the toddlers spent an average of 32 mins/day on electronic media devices. By the age of five years this had increased to 114 mins/day. 


And nearly 1 in 4 children (23 per cent) spent more than an hour on total screen time every day at 18 months of age; by the age of five years this percentage had risen to 95 per cent.


By the age of five years, more than two thirds (67 per cent) watched programs for more than an hour a day and around 1 in 10 (11 per cent) spent more than an hour a day gaming.


Maximum recommended daily use of electronic media for preschoolers is 60 minutes.


When the children were 5, validated questionnaires (FTF and SDQ) were used to assess the prevalence of  ‘psychosocial symptoms’—emotional and behavioural issues, short attention span, hyperactivity, and difficulties making and keeping friends. 


Extended use of all electronic media at 18 months was associated with a 59 per cent heightened risk of peer relationship problems by the age of five years, but nothing else. 


By the age of five years, extensive electronic gaming was associated only with a heightened risk of hyperactivity, which disappeared after taking account of influential factors. But lengthy program viewing was associated with a heightened risk of several psychosocial problems.


And excess total screen time at five years of age was associated with a heightened risk of  attention and concentration difficulties, hyperactivity and impulsivity, and emotional and behavioural problems. 


This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause. In addition, psychosocial symptoms weren’t assessed in the children when aged 18 months of age while electronic media use wasn’t based on logs or objective measures.  


Next steps 


The time children spend on electronic media likely reduces the time spent interacting with family members, reading, and playing, researchers suggested. And at an early age, children’s healthy social and emotional development depends on a dynamic interplay between social learning and environmental factors. 


“Our results show that five-year-old children spend considerably more time on e-media than is recommended by professionals. Our results further indicate that high levels of e-media use, especially programme viewing, is associated with problems with psychosocial outcomes, while use of electronic games was only associated with hyperactivity in the crude models.”


“Although children’s e-media use patterns might not seem problematic when considering use on a daily level, they do have risks in the long term,” researchers emphasised. 


To access the research in full, please see here

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