This study examines screen use by young children during the first COVID-19 lockdown in Israel. Screen use is a matter of importance because there is wide consensus among researchers and professionals that unsupervised screen time has generally negative effects on the cognitive and emotional development of children.
The study found that young children of parents who experienced more stress during the lockdown were exposed to lengthier periods in front of screens. It was also found that the feelings of stress were more common among families from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and among the Arab population, and that screen use was more intensive among children of parents without an academic education.
Existing research on screen use
There is pervasive agreement in the research and policy literature that screen use can hinder optimal development, particularly among the youngest children.
- Unsupervised screen use by children has negative effects related to weight gain, sleep disorders, and behavioral and emotional problems, and may also harm the cognitive development of young children.
- Among preschool-age children, watching screens can harm language and literacy development.
- Young children from low socioeconomic backgrounds tend to spend more time in front of screens than do those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.
- Existing literature reveals a positive relationship between economic pressures and stress, depression, and anxiety, and parents being less involved with their children.
Survey findings on screen use in Israel
Taub Center researchers conducted a survey during the first COVID-19 lockdown among 1,300 parents, Jews and Arabs, of children between the ages of one and six. The questionnaire dealt with issues related to the daily routine of parents with young children during this period, including screen use and other activities, with additional questions relating to parents’ sociodemographic characteristics, their employment status, and their emotional state.
An analysis of the survey results found the following:
- The use of screens increased with the age of the child.
- There was a negative correlation between parents’ education level and screen use.
- There was a significant and positive correlation between parental stress and screen use. That is, as parents reported higher levels of stress, they also reported that their children spent a greater part of the day using screens.
- Arab parents and parents whose income is lower than average were more likely to suffer from psychological stress during this time than those from stronger socioeconomic groups.
- Controlling for background variables, the chance that Arab children ages one to two will watch television is greater than for Jewish children of the same age. In contrast, the likelihood that an Arab child ages three to six watched a great deal of television during the lockdown was actually lower than for a Jewish child of the same age.
Our findings suggest that the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdowns may have exacerbated the negative effects of screen time among young children. This is because the COVID-19 outbreak affected families’ economic stability and stress levels while, at the same time, leaving young children at home when early childhood education frameworks were closed.
This research was generously supported by the Beracha Foundation, the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and Yad Hanadiv.