40 years ago, the screen was limited to television and occasionally to the cinema. Confined to the sphere of leisure, it offered a more restricted content. Today, the screen has become plural: tablet, phone, television, computer, video game console; its content is fragmented and its use spans all dimensions of our lives, including work, daily activities and communications.
Taking an interest in the impacts of digital media on children’s development is therefore a necessity. This is precisely the research object of Caroline Fitzpatrick, professor at the Faculty of Education. The recipient of the Canada Research Chair in Children’s Use of Digital Media will benefit from US$600,000 in financial support to advance knowledge in this area.
Negative… but also positive impacts on children’s development
For over ten years, teacher Caroline Fitzpatrick has been interested in the relationship between children’s use of screens and the development of their physical, cognitive and social skills. Professor Fitzpatrick’s research is even more relevant today as it seeks to address certain limitations of existing studies, including the lack of longitudinal studies based on population samples that grow after market introduction.
“The vast majority of research – and this goes for my previous work as well – has focused more on screen time. They established that too many hours can have considerable negative consequences on children’s cognitive abilities as well as their social and physical well-being, particularly if they come from underprivileged backgrounds. But few studies have measured content and contexts. »
That’s what makes this research chair different: studying children’s digital media usage habits, yes, but taking into account the content, context and their influence on young people’s development.
Propose differentiated guidelines to guide those around the small
To determine whether the impact of such use on children’s development is positive or negative, Professor Fitzpatrick examines several dimensions of technology use. Research has already shown that certain digital behaviors increase young people’s potential and have a positive effect on their development, for example, watching content with educational value or displaying pro-social behaviors (such as Sesame Street Where Master key) or to participate in a video conference where the child discusses and improves their language.
With this research chair, we want to go further, issue precise recommendations, more subtle guidelines than just screen time, to guide parents, schools and the health sector.
Professor Caroline Fitzpatrick
Ultimately, this will also provide a better understanding of the circumstances that lead to negative consequences to distinguish them from those that have a positive impact. The research program will also apply to determine how the impact of digital technology may differ according to the child’s age, gender, ethnicity and individual characteristics (weakness, overweight) that already exist.
For Jean-Pierre Perreault, vice-rector of research and graduate studies, this new research chair is directly aligned with one of the unifying themes of UdeS, namely, the promotion of coexistence. “This research program will shed light on the many factors that enable digital media to help children succeed, become engaged, healthy and socially competent learners. It will also allow us to identify circumstances in which these media can undermine personal success and social cohesion, increasing isolation, decreasing empathy, and harming mental and physical health. »
Breaking everyday life, one activity at a time
To collect all the data she needs, Caroline Fitzpatrick is not starting from scratch: “I am a member of a consortium of international researchers whose aim is to create a more detailed measure of the use of digital technology by children and their families. We develop tools together that we share and we used it with a cohort that started in 2019 with over 300 Nova Scotia families. »
In addition to a detailed online questionnaire, an application for tablets and phones is used to measure the use of these screens in an uninterrupted and continuous way. Cross-sectional data on content and context are collected through a digital diary completed by participating parents. They note there, among other things, the time the child plays outdoors, their sleep periods, the content they watched and the periods when an adult accompanied them in their viewing, etc.
“Even if the sample is made up of families with very similar characteristics, we can already see that, in a relatively homogeneous group, there is heterogeneity in use. Our hypothesis is that we will still see variations in impact in this group of children who, however, all had a low level of risk at the beginning. At least that’s what the data collected during our follow-ups carried out in 2020 and 2021 with these families show us. »
Professor Fitzpatrick has just secured nearly $490,000 in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to conduct a third follow-up with participating families, including in-person visits. As part of this research component entitled Examine the impact of children’s media habits during the pandemic on their health and development, measurements of weight and height will be taken, motor skills and emotional regulation of the child will be evaluated, as well as their level of empathy, the richness of their vocabulary and their ability to concentrate. The research team will also contact the teaching staff to consider the adaptation of these six-year-olds to their entry into school.
A 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 on aspects related to the academic, physical, motor and developmental impacts of children: Gabrielle Garon-Carrier, from the Faculty of Education, holder from the Canada Research Chair in School Readiness, Inclusion of Vulnerable Populations and Social Adjustment, Félix Berrigan from the Faculty of Human Kinetics, and Mélanie Couture from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Training the next generation is also an exciting challenge for Caroline Fitzpatrick, whether future researchers or future workers. Several undergraduate, master’s, doctoral and post-doctoral students are part of its research team, as well as international interns. The teacher also looks for other stakeholders from various disciplines (education, psychology, physical activity, health, etc.) to complete her team.
Interest in digital practices as constituents of coexistence
The digital habits of today’s youth shape the individuals and society of tomorrow. With the aim of promoting coexistence, the research chair will shed light on the individual, family and school factors that ensure that digital media help children to succeed, to become engaged and healthy, healthy, socially competent students.