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Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, teens were spending an average of seven hours a day on their phones, as the journalist Paul Greenberg points out in his 2020 book, “Goodbye Phone, Hello World.” Some racked up considerably more hours. A new study suggests that this sort of technology overuse doesn’t just pop up during adolescence.
Researchers at Penn State analyzed 10,000 students and found that kindergarteners in low-income families and Black kindergarteners of all incomes had a higher propensity to be heavy users of technology by the end of elementary school. Hyperactive kindergarteners and those exhibiting aggressive behaviors, such as hitting, were also more likely to become frequent users. The study focused on fifth graders who said they were playing online video games, using social media or texting “many times” a day and their characteristics and behavior in kindergarten.
“We haven’t really known who are the kids at risk for being frequent users of these technologies as they grow up,” said lead researcher Paul Morgan, a professor of education at Penn State. “Our study provides some indication of the groups.”
The Penn State findings echo a 2017 survey by the nonprofit media watchdog, Common Sense, which found that low-income children were sitting in front of a television or a computer screen for almost double the time of a child from a wealthier family.
Morgan’s study, “Risk and Protective Factors for Frequent Electronic Device Use of Online Technologies,” was published online January 2021 in the journal Child Development. The Penn State researchers analyzed an existing U.S. Department of Education database that tracks a large group of students who started kindergarten in 2010. The children are selected to represent the nation’s geographic, income and racial diversity. More than 10,000 of the students had answered questions on their technology use in the spring of fifth grade in 2016. The researchers compared the most frequent users with the children’s earlier kindergarten attributes.
Kindergarteners with diagnosed disabilities were more likely to become frequent online gamers but not texters or users of social media such as Snapchat, Twitter or Facebook. Among fifth graders who were heavy users, boys were more likely to gravitate toward video games while girls were more likely to text and engage with social media.
Reading to your child and encouraging your child to read picture books outside of school might help protect children from becoming heavy device users. Children of all incomes and races who had more exposure to early literacy activities were less likely to become frequent texters or users of social media, the researchers found.
The study wasn’t able to explain why certain categories of youngsters, such as low-income or Black children, were more likely to overuse technology. But previous research has documented that low-income families often don’t have access to high quality childcare after school or during the summers.
Based on this study, a kindergartener from a low-income family at the 15th percentile of the nation’s income distribution would have 52 percent greater odds of becoming a frequent user of all three online technologies — gaming, texting and social media — than an upper-middle class kindergartener from a family at the 85th percentile of the income distribution.
In the data, 54 percent of the Black students said they used technology many times in fifth grade compared to 43 percent of white students, 44 percent of Hispanic students and 37 percent of Asian students. Nearly 10 percent of Black fifth graders said they were doing all three things — social media, online gaming and texting — many times a day, double the rate of white students.
I wondered if Black families who live in neighborhoods with high crime rates prefer to keep their kids indoors at home where it’s harder to limit device use, particularly when parents are working. But it’s puzzling that the researchers didn’t detect the same rates of heavy use with Asian or Latino students. Another hypothesis among scholars is that Black children are able to connect with other Black children online as a way to form social networks and cope with discrimination.
Morgan suspects that parents of hyperactive or aggressive children are unintentionally reinforcing the habit of using a smartphone or a tablet. “Parents might turn to technologies or screens to manage their children’s outbursts,” he said.
It’s not clear that frequent technology use is harmful. The psychological literature is muddy with several studies finding no harm to children’s mental health. For example, a 2019 study found that social media use doesn’t harm adolescent well-being. Ron Dahl, who directs the Institute for Human Development at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that social interaction while gaming or using social media can be healthy for adolescent development. This 2020 review of the research confirms that.
Other studies that don’t rely on students’ self-reported feelings have shown that young people who are heavy technology users sleep less and gain more weight, a sign that time on devices is displacing outdoor exercise. Morgan is concerned that increased technology use is displacing book reading. “Book reading is so important for kids,” he said.
A newer 2020 study concluded that children who spend more than one hour on electronic devices a day displayed lower academic achievement in elementary school.
Morgan said he hopes educators and public health officials can use his study to target information to parents about limiting device use, such as turning devices off an hour before bedtime. “We want families to have information about the negative associations around frequent use,” he said.
“I don’t want to overstate the risk associated with technology use because there’s some debate about this,” Morgan added.
Since the pandemic hit, this debate seems quaint. “Screen time has gone through the roof,” said Morgan. “It’s been hard with the kids at home all the time. What do you do? Especially when you’re trying to work during the day.”
Adopting healthy screen habits is a challenge for us all.
This story about technology overuse was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.