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Digital media use in young children

Written By: Lisa-Maria Müller
6 min read

This research review is based on a chapter that was previously published in Muller and Goldenberg (2022), a report in our ‘Education in Times of Crisis’ series.


Debates around the use of technology and the internet by young children have been dominated by strong opposition and concerns about its impact on children’s development as well as an urge to regulate their technology use (Livingstone et al., 2017). Debates about the right amount of ‘screen time’ largely dominated the discourse, worrying parents and educators alike (Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2018).

More recently, the debate appears to have moved on to a place where it is largely accepted that digital technologies are very much part of children’s ‘multimodal lifeworlds’ (Arnott and Yelland, 2020) from a very young age onward. The most recent data collected by Ofcom (2020) shows that 98 per cent of three- to seven-year olds in the UK watch television on any device while 51 per cent of three- to four-year-olds and 64 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds now watch videos on YouTube. Nearly half of two- to four-year olds and 63 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds use tablets to go online and 39 per cent of three- to four-year-olds and 62 per cent of five- to seven-year-olds play digital games, with 17 per cent and 35 per cent respectively playing them online. Tablet use by three- to four-year-olds has increased significantly by about 20 per cent since 2015, according to these latest results (Ofcom, 2020).

As parent report can be an unreliable and imprecise indicator of children’s media use, a research team from the US developed an app to objectively measure children’s screen time of 346 three- to four-year-olds. They found that one-third of their participants owned their own devices and spent an average of two hours a day on these devices (Radesky et al., 2020). It was more difficult to assess the precise time for participants who were sharing devices and it is possible, of course, that children who own their own mobile devices spend more time on them than their peers who have to share with siblings or parents.

This data indicates the important position of mobile devices such as tablets and mobile phones in young children’s lives. Even in 2016, Palaiologou (2016) found that over 60 per cent of children under the age of three across England, Luxembourg, Greece and Malta regularly accessed digital media, with a preference for television (86 per cent) over computer or Internet-based technologies (23 per cent). Sixty-five per cent of parents in this study reported that they used tablets for educational purposes with their children (e.g. to read or develop literacy or numeracy skills). From age three, an increasing proportion of children started to interact with computer- (68 per cent) and internet-based activities (54 per cent), indicating that the shift of interest away from television and toward internet-based media may happen earlier than suggested in previous studies which observed this shift occurring around the age of eight (Gutnick et al., 2011).

This shows that digital media are indeed very much part of young children’s lives, even below the age of three, and that children’s interest in internet-based media appears to emerge at a younger age than previously anticipated. This is why it is important to consider debates about screen time and its potential effect on children’s development.


Debates around screen time in young children

Blum-Ross and Livingstone (2018) show that parents can feel guilty or stressed when they feel that they allow their children ‘too much’ screen time. Their study with families in London showed that many parents still refer to the ‘2×2 rule’ of screen time (no screen time under two and no more than two hours for older children) that was part of screen time guidance published by the American Association of Pediatrics in 1999 (cited in Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2018), despite the fact that these have since been updated (Council on Communications and Media, 2016) to reflect more recent societal changes and new research insights. These updated guidelines make the following recommendations:

  • no screens for infants and toddlers apart from video chats
  • educational television with accompanying parents from 15 months (more about that below) 
  • restricting screen time to one hour for two- to five-year-olds
  • the development of media plans for families that outline restrictions
  • involving children aged six and above in the development of these plans
  • parents paying attention to their own screen time so that they model good behaviour to their children. 


Hassinger-Das et al.’s review (2020) outlines that the displacement hypothesis lies at the origin of concerns about potential negative impacts of screen time on young children’s development. This is the idea that more time spent in front of the television would lead to less time spent on other activities such as homework, sports or reading, which in turn would lead to negative outcomes for children’s cognitive and physical development, such as lower academic performance or weight gain. However, the link between exposure to television and behavioural outcomes appears to be more complex. 

Some studies have found that extensive exposure to non-educational television can negatively impact students’ cognitive performance, behavioural and health outcomes (Cox et al., 2012; Stiglic and Viner, 2019; Tomopoulous et al., 2007, 2010; Walsh et al., 2020) while other research has observed a positive impact of certain forms of screen time. For example, studies have found a positive impact of educational television such as Sesame Street or Blue’s Clues on children’s learning and their socio-emotional development (e.g. Anderson, 2000; Kearney and Levine, 2019; Mares and Pan, 2013; Richards and Calvert, 2017) as well as their language development (Madigan et al., 2020). A recent study has found similar benefits of an educational app on children’s vocabulary development (Dore et al., 2019). 

The positive impact of co-viewing or co-interacting with media on children’s language development has also been found in numerous studies (Madigan et al., 2020; Myers et al., 2017; Samudra, 2019). Madigan et al. (2020) found that the quantity of screen use was negatively associated with children’s language skills, but exposure to educational programmes and co-viewing were associated with stronger language skills. A recent meta-analysis has also shown a positive impact of educational apps on children’s academic development, in particular their mathematics learning (Griffith et al., 2020). Taken together, this suggests a more complex relationship between screen time and developmental outcomes. 

Some researchers therefore argue that a focus on time spent in front of screens alone is too simplistic and does not take the full complexity of the relationship or families’ lived experiences into account (Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2018; Palaiologou, 2016). They therefore suggest focusing on the quality rather than merely the quantity of screen time (e.g. Blum-Ross and Livingstone 2018; Hassinger-Das et al., 2020; Palaiologou, 2016). Blum-Ross and Livingstone (2018) also argue that a focus on time alone does not take into account the full range of activities that children can engage with via screens and digital media. For example, equating screen time with not moving does not take a wide range of activities into account that combine movement and/or being outdoors and screen time (e.g. Pokemon Go). The most recent WHO guidelines appear to take this into account. While they still suggest no screen time for infants and no more than one hour for children up to the age of four (WHO, 2019), the guidelines speak of ‘sedentary’ screen time, suggesting that active screen time that encourages children to move would not be counted towards this quantitative recommendation. 


While there are risk factors associated with sedentary, non-educational screen time, it is important to note that the impact of screen time on learning and development will differ depending on its purpose and function. It therefore is important to consider the nature and quality of screen time rather than simply the amount of time young children spend in front of TVs or tablets. Where appropriate, teachers may want to incorporate effective use of screen time by co-viewing educational television programmes or apps with their pupils to support their teaching. Educational apps should also be chosen carefully and always with the pedagogical goal in mind. Schools may also want to share some top tips around screen time with their parent community to address fears they may have around children’s use of digital media and suggest how they can use screen time effectively.

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