Nighttime smartphone use by children might have significant consequences on their attention and school performance, according to a recent study published in The Journal of Early Adolescence. Researchers discovered that using smartphones during the night was linked to attentional problems four months later. However, the findings also indicate that the relationship between smartphone use and academic performance is more complex than previously thought.
Over the past decade, smartphones have reshaped the way we communicate, learn, and entertain ourselves. Children are increasingly getting their first smartphones at an earlier age and using them well into the night. But concerns about the impact of screen time on children’s development, especially their ability to pay attention and perform well in school, have grown.
Previous research has shown correlations between excessive screen time and various negative outcomes, such as attentional problems and sleep disturbances. However, most of these studies were cross-sectional, meaning they captured a snapshot of behavior at a single point in time. The new study aimed to provide a more comprehensive understanding by examining these associations over time.
“The topic caught our interest due to concerns surrounding increasing smartphone use among children,” said study author Anja Stevic, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Communication at the University of Vienna. “However, the context in which smartphones are used is of key relevance in this study.”
“Understanding the potential impact of late-night smartphone use on attention during the day and school performance is crucial, as education is a fundamental aspect of a child’s development. Conducting research on the consequences of nighttime smartphone use has significant implications for education, health, parenting, and policy-making. It addresses critical concerns about the impact of technology and provides insights into how to support optimal smartphone use habits among children.
The study involved a two-wave panel survey conducted in Germany, including 822 parent-child pairs in the first wave (Time 1) and 384 pairs in the second wave (Time 2), with a four-month interval. This design allowed the researchers to explore how children’s nighttime smartphone use was associated with later attentional problems and school performance, while controlling for baseline measures.
Parents were asked to complete the initial questionnaire, and then they passed it on to their children. The survey included questions about nighttime smartphone use, attentional problems, subjective school performance (children’s self-assessment), and achieved school performance (grades in German, English, and mathematics).
The researchers observed various negative associations of nighttime smartphone use over time.
Nighttime smartphone use at Time 1 was significantly associated with parent-reported children’s attentional problems at Time 2. In simpler terms, children who used smartphones late at night were more likely to experience attention-related issues during the day.
Parent-reported children’s attentional problems at Time 1, in turn, were negatively related to children’s subjective school performance at Time 2. This means that children with more attentional problems tended to perceive their own school performance more negatively.
Parent-reported children’s attentional problems at Time 1 were also negatively associated with children’s achieved school performance at Time 2. In other words, children with more attentional problems tended to receive lower grades in school.
One unexpected finding was a direct positive relationship between nighttime smartphone use and achieved school performance. Contrary to expectations, children who used smartphones at night tended to have higher school performance based on grades, though the reasons for this positive relationship are not entirely clear.
“It was surprising to find a positive relationship between children’s nighttime smartphone use and achieved school performance after four months,” Stevic told PsyPost. “In a way, this finding suggest a benefit of having access to smartphones during nighttime and actively engaging with it. For children, the device is also a source of invaluable information and social support from peers, thus positively contributing to their achieved school performance.”
The findings highlight the importance of responsible smartphone use, digital literacy education, and effective communication between parents and children.
“Key takeaways relate to both positive and negative processes that may occur due to children’s nighttime smartphone use,” Stevic explained. “For parents, it is relevant to recognise when and how does the device aid or impede children’s sleep and whether lack of sleep relates to their attentional problems during the day.
“The study does not imply causation, but rather shows the associations between nighttime smartphone use, attentional problems, and school performance during early adolescence, emphasizing the importance of addressing nighttime smartphone use for children’s well-being and academic success.”
While this study offers valuable insights into the impact of nighttime smartphone use on children, it also has limitations. The study relied on self-reports, which can be subject to biases and inaccuracies. Future research could benefit from more objective measures. It could also be beneficial to investigate the specific content of smartphone use.
“In this study, we did not assess the content of children’s nighttime smartphone use, which would be an important indicator of positive or negative experiences that children are exposed to before sleep,” Stevic said. “Therefore, when assessing children’s technology use and school performance it is relevant to take into account objective measures, i.e., the content of smartphone use as well as reports about children’s behavior and school grades from parents and teachers.”
“Moving forward, it’s essential to test and develop effective interventions aimed at optimizing children’s nighttime smartphone use. The main goal is to find ways to enhance the benefits and mitigate the potential harms of digital technologies for children in their developmental period.”
The study, “Distracted Children? Nighttime Smartphone Use, Children’s Attentional Problems, and School Performance Over Time“, was authored by Anja Stevic, Desirée Schmuck, Marina F. Thomas, Kathrin Karsay, and Jörg Matthes.