Young children and teacher gathered around an iPad.
Published on: January 25, 2021

Children are not only starting to use online electronic devices and online technologies at a younger age, but they are also using them in more situations at home and at school. However, frequent use of online technologies may harm children’s development by displacing other activities that are developmentally beneficial. Penn State researchers are trying to identify which young children are growing up to be frequent users of online technologies.

According to lead researcher Paul Morgan, a professor of education and director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research, current guidelines recommend that school-aged children limit their electronic device use. Yet their use is rapidly increasing, especially during the pandemic.

“Understanding which children are more vulnerable to frequent online technology use is important yet has been understudied in the past," said Morgan. "Many studies are reporting negative associations between frequent use of online technologies and older children’s development, suggesting such use may be displacing important activities such as parent-child interactions, book reading, physical activity, and regular sleep.”

The research appears in the journal Child Development.

Morgan and the research team wanted to identify which kindergarten children were frequently using electronic devices while messaging, online gaming, and social networking, as well as a combination of the three, by the end of fifth grade.

They analyzed the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Cohort of 2010-2011, which followed children in kindergarten in the fall of 2010 until fifth grade in the spring of 2016. Children reported how often they used cellphones, computers, apps, iPads, tablets or other electronic devices to send messages, play online games, and use social networking sites including Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

The researchers found that Black children were more likely to be frequent users of messaging, online gaming, social networking, or a combination of the three.

“We found that Black children were 65% to 75% more likely to grow up to be frequent users of online technologies on average than white children, conditional on the study’s covariates,” said Morgan. “One explanation of this finding is that Black children may be experiencing relatively greater discrimination by elementary school, which may lead these children to turn to online technologies to connect with similar peers and to express their racial identities.”

The researchers also found that children who are Asian were less likely to be frequent users of messaging, while Asian and Hispanic children were less likely to be frequent users of social networking.

Another finding indicated that children from higher-income households were less likely to frequently engage in online gaming and social networking than children from lower income households.

“Children of parents who emphasized early literacy activities and who set limits on watching TV were less likely to become frequent users of online technologies,” Morgan said.

Additionally, children who displayed externalizing problematic behaviors were more likely to later be frequent users of online technologies, said the researchers.

“This finding suggests that parents may be turning to electronic devices to pacify children who are being aggressive or acting out,” said Morgan.

The researchers were surprised to find that many of the same demographic patterns reported in studies of older children were already occurring in their sample of younger children.

“We found that boys were more likely to become frequent users of online gaming, while girls more likely to be frequent users of messaging and social networking, even during elementary school,” said Morgan. “These patterns emerged early. Our analyses can help identify families that might especially benefit from targeted educational and public health campaigns about the negative associations between frequent use of online technologies and children’s healthy development.”

Morgan suggests interventions such as setting screen-time routines that help children meet recommended guidelines for physical play, sleep, book-reading, and other activities, as well as limiting access to online technologies during homework, shared mealtimes, and within one hour of bedtime.

The project was funded by CEDR and Penn State’s Population Research Institute’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant. Other Penn State researchers on the project were Yangyang Wang, research assistant, and Adrienne D. Woods, postdoctoral research scholar.