Digital devices don’t make kids hyperactive — they help hyperactive kids maintain alertness

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Don’t blame phones or tablets if your child seems distracted all the time. In a “chicken or the egg” type of discovery, international researchers have found that children who use mobile phones and other digital devices more are already hyperactive before playing with these gadgets.

Researchers from Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungary say hyperactive kids need constant stimulation to maintain their alertness level. They often get this stimulation through fast-paced video games and movies on mobile devices.

For the study, the Alpha Generation Lab at the Department of Ethology at ELTE had parents of preschool children between four and six years-old complete a questionnaire on their child’s mobile device or tablet usage as well as their behavioral problems. Researchers followed up with the parents three years later with the same questionnaire when their children were between the ages of seven and nine.

The team found the more naturally restless a child is, the more likely they are to use digital devices.

“We found that the level of hyperactivity and attention deficit in preschool predicted the amount of mobile use in school, meaning that the more fidgety and distracted a child is in preschool, the more gadgetry they use in early school. This can be explained by the fact that parents are more likely to use digital devices to distract or engage these children, and the children themselves are more likely to seek stimulating, intense content,” says Veronika Konok, head of the research team at the Alpha Generation Lab, Department of Ethology, ELTE, in a media release.

Early mobile app usage can actually have benefits for kids

The study also revealed that the amount of mobile phone usage during preschool failed to predict the extent of hyperactivity and attention problems during early school years for children.

“We can conclude that mobile use in early childhood does not lead to hyperactivity/attention deficit, unlike, for example, watching TV. But we need to interpret this result carefully, as the lack of correlation could be due to, for example, the low number of participants, with only 100 parents completing the questionnaire for the second time, or other factors. We do not recommend anyone to allow unlimited mobile phone use for their pre-school children based on the results of this research,” notes Rebeka Szőke, PhD student at the Alpha Generation Lab, Department of Ethology, ELTE.

Researchers believe one main reason for the lack of correlation is that mobile apps for preschoolers are usually developmental and don’t overstimulate their minds in comparison to cartoons or violent video games for older children.

The study also found that kids with social issues used mobile phones more, but only when they were younger. Children who had a high usage rate with digital devices had poor social skills, as escaping to the virtual world increased their isolation.

Study authors note they were unable to detect whether early mobile phone use leads to later social problems or vice versa.

The study is published in the journal Sustainability.

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