The target beneficiaries of our research and public engagement activities are parents of 0- to 3-year-old children across the UK (~4 million children + parents). Our initial aim was to see whether entering into a dialogue with parents about the potential pros – and cons – of touchscreen use, with our own published findings as a starting point for the conversation, would change the way parents thought about screen time and, in the longer term, how their children used touchscreen devices. This project was funded by a Wellcome Trust Provision for Public Engagement grant to Rachael Bedford (PI) and collaborators Tim Smith, National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and Early Years Alliance (EYA).
Managing infants' and toddlers' screen time is increasingly becoming a source of anxiety for parents. At NCT, we believe it's crucial to shift the conversation away from judgement and guilt, and focus on providing parents with evidence-based information in a supportive way. We welcome this study, as its focused research questions, and engagement with both parents and the practitioners who support them to understand their views and concerns, will help us to provide support in this area.” - Sarah McMullen, former-NCT Head of Knowledge (2016)
Our aims evolved based on focus group feedback, which showed that parents were feeling guilty about their children’s use – some for having too much, others for not giving their child enough opportunities to use them. “New mums express guilt, saying ‘should I use this, can I use this, what damage am I doing?’ Everything is changing so fast, but we’re on catch up trying to work out how it fits in.” – NCT practitioner, Focus Group 1. We therefore expanded our objectives to see whether discussion and increased understanding of the current scientific evidence, would make parents feel more empowered.
There is currently conflicting and unclear guidance around the impact of tablets and touchscreens use by our very youngest on their learning and development... This project engages directly with parents and practitioners to gather their views – giving us a much greater understanding of this important area as a result.” - Neil Leitch, Early Years Alliance Chief Executive (2018)
Practitioners with NCT and Early Years Alliance as well as two groups of parents took part in a set of four focus group (FG) sessions. We discussed the pros and cons of screen time and touchscreen use at different ages, explained some of the current screen time guidelines and discussed their usefulness and feasibility, and summarised some of our own published findings.
What did we learn?
With an absence of well publicised guidelines parents felt that there was a lack of knowledge around how to manage the use of touchscreens, and therefore to know what is appropriate, and this was contributing to levels of anxiety.
Guidelines were seen as good, feasible and, in most cases, practical to implement. However, while collectively parents stated that they could practically implement the guidelines, there was an underlying feeling that that may not be the case individually – there were a number of confessions about giving children unfettered access to mobile devices and touchscreens.
The issue of guilt came up quite regularly, in that parents could feel guilty if they did not/were not able to adhere to the guidelines. However, the majority felt parents should be given the chance to make an informed decision, based on the evidence.
What did parents and practitioners take away?
“If it’s been shown that TV is detrimental to sleep, that’s something I’ve taken away from here, that you don’t put the TV back on after bath time because there’s a reason for it. Whereas that didn’t exist in my mind.” - NCT practitioner, FG 1
“I think I will put restrictions on now. [My son] is using it when I’m not there. So let’s sit together and see what he does. I knew that using it too long wasn’t good. But seeing the guidelines and stuff [TABLET project findings] I do realise that it’s important to put the restrictions.” – Early Years Alliance Practitioner, FG 3
“The one here about taking devices away before bedtime. I would really have appreciated that. It’s an easy thing to do.” - NCT practitioner, FG 1
“The science behind sleep was good to know.” – Parent, FG 2
“I’ll take away the information so that I can increase negotiations with other family members. I can’t encourage other people to care about screen use, so this helps because it’s not coming from me.” - Parent, FG 2
What was the main thing you remember from the FGs?
Parent 1: “Main thing I got was don’t do the touchscreen within half hour or hour of bedtime”
Parent 2: “Touchscreens or screen time seems to affect children and adult sleep, for every hour spent on screens you lost 15 mins of core sleep, I can remember that because that really had an effect on me.”
Did hearing the science/guidelines about less screen time before bed change how you use screens?
Parent 2: “that endorsed it even more, you know, enforced us to actually curtail any tough screen stuff before bed”
Parent 2: “did have an effect on me in terms of… So with my daughter, now in the main we would put my son to bed first, she needs to do her homework or she’s allowed to do reading instead of watching TV which is, I think that could have been influenced by the guidelines and we could end up doing that for the both of them.”
Did you know the guidance about not using screens in the hour before bed (American Academy of Pediatrics)?
Parent 1: “I don’t think I did… it’s logical, it’s like a lot of these things you hear, they’re not really, not necessarily telling you something you don’t know but hearing it from somebody else… is helpful"
One year on...
Science of Screen Time @ Polka Theatre
The Science of Screen Time was an interactive science day held at Polka Theatre, Wimbledon on 24th July, featuring a range of drop in activities for parents and children. There were themed, drop-in activities in the theatre foyer, including emoji bracelet making (using fine motor skills), real-world eye tracking and interactive games (attention and distraction), a chill-out area (sleep) and a Q&A session with the scientists. In addition, a 30-minute science show “Behind the Screens” interactively presented the findings from our TABLET project.
What did parents take away?
“I’m interested by the sleep poster. I’ve sent a picture of it to my husband and we might be changing some of the rules in the house”
“I didn’t know about the [finding that] screens on in the background distracts you. I’ll probably have music on instead now”
“Will it change anything? It sounds silly, but maybe I’ll be less worried!”
“She’s 4, she just uses a screen for twenty minutes before bed every night, but I’ll be thinking about that now I know about the sleep study”
“I will worry less about touchscreen use, but definitely limit their use”
Discussion Corner @ Techtopia
Techtopia festival was held at Polka Theatre, Wimbledon, for two weeks during May 2018. Toddlers & Touchscreens had the opportunity to produce an information board and question zone within the foyer of the theatre, which benefitted from footfall of parents and children visiting the festival. The area was used to gather opinion on touchscreen use relating to areas of TABLET research (sleep, fine motor skills and attention) and raise awareness of the study by sharing some of the usage findings. During two of the days during the festival, Ana and/or a facilitator from FLOW was present to animate the study and gather quotes and opinions from parents and children present.
Workshop @ Bloomsbury Festival
In October 2018 we were at Brunswick Square taking part in the Bloomsbury Festival. There, we created a space for the whole family to promote and engage in discussions about how screens are potentially changing our lives. Inspired by the scientific evidence and conversations, families sewed their own emoji response on tablet-templates and took away their postcards. We had a big range of families participating (families with very young children, grandparents with older kids, groups of teenagers) and actively engaging with the activity, learning how to back-stitch and having conversations about screen time/use. Visitors could choose from 4 join-the-dots designs which had different levels of difficulty – the easiest one could be done by a 4-year-old but the most difficult design was also the one that represented a more complex topic of discussion (so it required more time to craft/discuss).