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Digital media have a negative but also a positive impact on children’s development.
Photo: Michel Caron UdeS

40 years ago, the screen was limited to television and occasionally to cinema. Restricted to leisure, it offered narrower content. Today, the screen has become plural: tablet, telephone, television, computer, game console; its content is fragmented and its use covers all dimensions of our lives, including work, daily activities and communication.

It is therefore essential to take an interest in the impact of digital media on children’s development. This is the subject of research by Caroline Fitzpatrick, a professor at the Faculty of Education. Anyone who has just acquired a Canadian research department in the use of digital media by children will receive $ 600,000 in financial support to expand their knowledge in this area.

Negative effects … but also positive effects on children’s development

Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick, the holder of a new research chair
Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick, the holder of a new research chair
Photo: Michel Caron UdeS

For more than a decade, Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick has been interested in the link between children’s use of screens and the development of their physical, cognitive and social skills. Professor Fitzpatrick’s research is all the more relevant today as it seeks to address some of the limitations of existing studies, including the lack of long-term studies based on samples from the post-marketing population.

“The vast majority of research – and this applies to my previous work – has focused more on time spent on screen. They found that too many hours can have significant negative consequences for children’s cognitive abilities as well as their social and physical well-being, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds. But few studies measured content and contexts. »

This is what distinguishes this research bench: yes, to study children’s digital media habits, but to take into account the content, context and their impact on young people’s development.

Design detailed guidelines to guide people around the little ones

To determine whether the impact of this use on children’s development is positive or negative, Professor Fitzpatrick examines several dimensions of their use of technology. Research has already shown that certain digital behaviors increase young people’s potential and have a positive impact on their development, such as watching content with educational value or presenting prosocial behavior (such as. sesame street Where Master key) or participate in a video conference where the child discusses and improves their language.

With this research chair, we want to go even further, issuing precise recommendations, more precise guidelines than just the time spent in front of the screen, to guide parents, schools and healthcare.

Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick

Ultimately, it will also provide a better understanding of the circumstances that lead to negative consequences in order to distinguish them from those that have a positive impact. The research program will also address how the impact of digital technologies may vary depending on the child’s age, gender, ethnicity and individual characteristics (weakness, overweight) that already exist.

For Jean-Pierre Perreault, Vice-Rector for Research and Postgraduate Studies, this new research chair is directly in line with one of the unifying themes of UdeS, by promoting cohabitation. “This research program will shed light on the various factors that enable digital media to help children succeed, become committed and healthy, socially competent students. It will also enable us to identify the circumstances in which these media can harm personal success and social cohesion by increasing isolation, reducing empathy and damaging mental and physical health. »

Breaking down everyday life, one activity after another

In order for Caroline Fitzpatrick to gather all the necessary data, she does not start from scratch: “I am a member of a consortium of international researchers who aim to create more detailed measurements of the use of digital technologies by children and their families. Together, we have developed tools that we share and use with the cohort, which began in 2019 with more than 300 families in Nova Scotia. »

In addition to a detailed online questionnaire, the application for tablets and phones is used to continuously and continuously measure the use of these screens. Cross-sectional content and context data is collected through a digital diary completed by the participating parents. They record, inter alia, the time when the child is playing outside, his or her sleep periods, the content to be monitored and the periods when he or she is accompanied by an adult, etc.

“Although the sample consists of families with quite similar characteristics, we can already see that there is heterogeneity in use in a relatively homogeneous group. Our hypothesis is that in this group of children, who, however, all had a low level of risk at the beginning, we will still see differences in impact. At the very least, this is shown by the data collected during our surveys conducted in 2020 and 2021 with these families. »

Professor Fitzpatrick has just received nearly $ 490,000 in funding from Canadian health research institutes to conduct a third follow-up with participating families, including face-to-face visits. Under this research component called Examine the impact of children’s media habits during a pandemic on their health and development, weights and heights are measured, the child ‘s motor skills and emotional regulation, level of empathy, vocabulary richness and ability to concentrate are evaluated. The research team will also contact the teaching staff to take into account the adaptation of these six-year-olds to enter school.

Team challenge

To achieve her goal, the young researcher can also count on the collaboration of colleagues from UdeS, whose expertise will enrich the work with aspects related to academic, physical, motor and developmental impacts of children: Gabrielle Garon-Carrier of the Faculty of Education, holder of the Canada Research Chair in School Ready, Inclusion of Vulnerable Populations and Social Adjustment, Félix Berrigan of the Faculty of Human Kinetics and Mélanie Couture of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Care.

Next-generation education is also a stimulating challenge for Caroline Fitzpatrick, whether they are future researchers or future workers. His research team includes several bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral students, as well as international interns. The professor is also looking for other candidates from various fields (education, psychology, physical activity, health, etc.) to join her team.

Take an interest in digital practices as part of living together

The digital habits of today’s young people shape the individuals and society of tomorrow. In order to promote coexistence, the research chair will shed light on individual, family and school factors that ensure that digital media helps children succeed, become committed and healthy students, healthy, socially competent.

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