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Researchers say 70 percent of parents either overestimated or underestimated the amount of time preschool children look at electronic screens. Getty Images
  • A new study concludes that most parents aren’t aware how much their preschool children are looking at electronic screens.
  • Researchers also discovered many parents weren’t aware of what their young children are watching.
  • Experts say excessive screen time can slow the normal development of a young child’s brain.
  • They suggest parents designate specific times when children have access to screens, and use a timer when children are looking at them.

If you’re sheltering at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, chances are your preschooler is spending a lot more time with a smartphone, tablet, or some kind of mobile device.

More time than they might ordinarily.

But if you had to guess how much screen time, your estimate might be way off. And you might not have any idea what they’re actually watching.

Those are the findings from a study published today in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers found the average daily usage among the children they studied who had their own devices was 115 minutes a day. That’s nearly 2 hours a day.

What were they engaging with? The most commonly used applications included YouTube Kids, internet browsers, quick search or Siri, and streaming video services.

“The most surprising thing was the amount of inappropriate apps we found on children’s game play output,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, FAAP, the lead study author and a developmental behavioral pediatrician and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School.

“We found apps not geared for a 3- to 4-year-old. Some were scary, violent video games,” she told Healthline. “We really wanted parents to be aware that these scary, violent apps were very accessible to kids.”

The research showed the young children used hundreds of different apps, including those geared for a general audience, gambling apps, and violent apps intended for teens and adults.

The researchers recruited 346 parents who had children ages 3 to 5 years old.

The scientists did their study by using mobile device sampling.

For Android smartphones, they used a tracking app that uploaded usage information to a secure database.

For iOS smartphones, they had the parents take screenshots of the data from the phones on time spent logged in as well as the number and kinds of apps.

When the researchers crunched the numbers, they discovered 35 percent of the parents underestimated their child’s screen time, and another 35 percent overestimated their kid’s screen time.

Collecting accurate data for these types of studies has been a problem in the past because researchers have had to rely on parent recollections.

“This is an interesting and important study that has implications for future research on media device use,” said Dr. Elizabeth Harstad, MPH, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts.

“These findings suggest that actual monitoring of device use is needed to accurately capture the frequency with which kids are engaging devices, because parent reporting is not very accurate,” she told Healthline. “It has implications for counseling parents about media use for their young children.”

In their study, the researchers document what parents are up against.

Children’s use of mobile media has increased rapidly over the past decade. Previous research shows the majority of parents have a smartphone they allow their children to play games on or watch videos.

More than 40 percent of young children have their own tablet. Many infants start handling a mobile device before they’re even 1 year old.

“The design features of mobile devices make them harder to parent around. They’re not as easy to monitor,” Radesky said. “They’re these tiny screens up in kids’ noses, and we’re not watching with them the way we would with a TV screen. They are more interactive and immersive.”

“This is part of the mobile revolution we need to adapt to,” she added.

Excessive screen time and a developing brain often don’t mix well.

“That age is prime time for optimal brain development. If you have too much screen time, you can interrupt or break some of the natural sequences of healthy brain development,” said Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator, intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

“In some children it can interrupt verbal skills and verbal logic,” she told Healthline. “They’re looking at a screen and it’s sort of like a hypnotic effect. They zone out.”

“There is a lack of social interaction. Social and emotional development is critical in those early years,” she added.

“When kids are on screens, they are not engaging with others or playing. Play is important to help develop a child’s problem-solving skills,” Harstad said. “Play helps kids practice using their imaginations, plan and organize, and work on getting along with others.”

“Screen time usually involves kids staying in one place and not moving much. It is healthier for them to be moving their bodies as they play and learn,” she added.

Experts suggest there are ways you can both track and reduce your child’s screen time.

Here some of their suggestions:

  • Try not to use mobile devices just to entertain your child.
  • Regulate access by having a central but hard-to-reach location for the devices.
  • Have a set time of day your child is allowed screen time.
  • Set up an in-device timer to monitor how long your child is looking at screens.
  • Control what your child can download with help from apps such as Google Family Link.
  • Get help from Common Sense Media’s Wide Open School, a list of positive resources online.

“Have a plan and a system. Reward [children] if they can turn off the tablet and hand it over. You’re teaching them their own technology self-regulation,” Radesky said. “Just remember, none of us is going to do this perfectly.”

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