Evaluating the Research - Child Use of Mobile Devices & Self-Regulation

We live in an age of information, where scientists and psychologists are constantly uncovering new tidbits of information about child development—which is undoubtedly extremely helpful to parents. But there are negative aspects to this constant stream of information, one of the main ones being that new and noteworthy findings are often taken as indisputable fact by readers who may be unaware of the possible limitations to the findings and how they came about.

When we look at eye-catching information that we may find in a new study, it is important for us as readers to look beyond just the title and the attention-catching results and dive deeper into what the study found, how the researchers found it, and all of the study’s strengths and limitations considered together. This way, we are able to get the full picture surrounding a study, and can more accurately evaluate the study and its recommendations. The importance of doing this can be proven by taking a look at some recently published research.

The Study

On the topic of new and noteworthy findings—a very recent “research letter” published in March has taken a look into how the introduction of screen time to children at an early age (around ages 3 to 5) can potentially harm their development, focussing on their ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation in children is their ability to “plan, control, and monitor their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.” This definition would include staying on-task and focussed during slow-paced and potentially boring activities, as well as being able to wait for rewards or gratification. Research has shown that a child’s ability to self-regulate is related to positive outcomes later in life including achievements in education, physical and mental health, and even income.

The Findings

This study claimed to find that…

  • Children who started using any form of screen time (including TV, computers, smartphones, and tablets) earlier in life had a lower ability to self-regulate.
  • Self-regulation abilities were lower in children who used mobile devices (phones/tablets) more than other children at the time of the study - regardless of when they started.
  • BUT… exposure to traditional forms of screen time (such as television and computers) did not seem to affect the children’s self-regulation abilities.

These findings suggest that while access to any form of screen time early in a child’s life can have a negative impact on their ability to self-regulate, the children’s current use of mobile/portable devices was the apparent culprit in reducing self-regulation abilities—while the children’s use of stationary media was not a part of this picture.

The Limitations

No study is perfect—they all have their limitations. As for this study, a handful of concerning limitations make it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from the study’s findings.

  • Small sample size. Data from only 56 children were analyzed. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, it is very important when you are making assumptions about a large group of people that your results are based on a large sample of the group of interest. In this case, a sample size of under 60 is definitely cause for some skepticism regarding their findings. If you found in a study that 50 adults became irritable after drinking milk, would you apply this finding to the millions of other adults around the world?
  • Self-Report Data. Information on the children’s screen time and devices that they used was collected using self-reports from parents. This type of data is widely known to have serious inaccuracy risks. This happens because parents don’t often remember each minute or hour their child used screens, or their child could have accessed a screen without their permission, or with another caregiver or parent that was not discussed with them. The researchers also did not release the measure that they used to collect this information from parents—and without knowing how screen time was measured, it is impossible to evaluate the quality of the evidence.
  • Cross-sectional research. It is important to note that this study was done in a “cross-sectional” matter, meaning that information was collected from these children at only one point in time. This means that any child’s change over time due to screen usage cannot be assessed in this study. Children were compared to other children, instead of to themselves, on measures of self-regulation. Using this method, there is the risk that whatever differences the study found could have just been differences in the various children—potentially due to other familial factors, parenting style, or personality, instead of screen use.
  • Non-randomized groups. This is a rather complicated and science-y concept, but what it essentially means to the reader of any study is that it can only ever conclude that one thing is “correlated” with another, and can never say that one thing causes another. These are two very different levels of proof, because correlation can be due to many other influences other than what the study was measuring, while causation is a more concrete conclusion. So, in the case of this study, we can only say that early introduction to screen time and the use of mobile devices are related to lower levels of self-regulation. We are NOT able to say that these factors cause lower levels of self-regulation.
  • “Mobile” vs. “Traditional” devices. One of the most interesting findings that the researchers boasted was that mobile devices were related to self-regulation while traditional devices were not. However, the researchers tell us nothing about how they made these two groups—not telling us exactly which devices fall into each category, or what quality of screen time was accessed by the children on any type of device.
  • “Research Letter”. This study and its findings were reported in a very short and vague write-up called a research letter—it is not a full paper. Because of this, there is not enough detail released by the researchers for the reader to fully draw conclusions from the study. For example, the researchers did not report results of all their findings. Instead, they made statements such as, “we found no evidence that self-regulation explained children’s use of screen media devices in this sample” without any numbers, statistics, or any sort of proof support their claim. And as with anything on the internet (no matter whether it is a “study” or not), we should be skeptical of claims without evidence.

The Takeaway

This study shows how new and seemingly noteworthy findings, when presented in an appealing way, can be easily taken as fact and spread around without knowing the severe shortcomings of the research.

In the case of this research, it has so many limitations that so significantly impact its believability that it is not possible to draw any meaningful conclusions from the study—no matter how interesting and novel the researchers’ suggested conclusions may be.

The main takeaway in this case is that readers should always be critical of news reports with scientific findings.

If anyone reading this post has ever come across a scientific article that seems legitimate, but would like a more in-depth analysis of the paper, it’s strengths and weaknesses, please feel free to reach out to familyscreentimeblog@gmail.com and we would be glad to offer a researcher’s critique for the blog!