Is early YouTube exposure causing emotional and behavioral issues in kids?

As young children are being increasingly introduced to smartphones and YouTube earlier in life, there is a need to examine how exposure to these outlets affects their emotional and behavioral development. To this end, a new study published in the journal BMC Public Health examines how watching YouTube affects young children in South Korea.

Study: From temperament to YouTube: exploring the link between childhood temperament, YouTube usage patterns, and emotional/behavioral problems among children. Image Credit: Subbotina Anna / Shutterstock.com Study: From temperament to YouTube: exploring the link between childhood temperament, YouTube usage patterns, and emotional/behavioral problems among children. Image Credit: Subbotina Anna / Shutterstock.com

Why this study?

In South Korea, over 90% of elementary school students have their own smartphones to network with each other, play games, browse the internet, and watch videos. Previous studies have indicated that smartphone and internet use is associated with higher levels of emotional and behavioral issues, including external aggression, internalized depression, and loneliness.

YouTube is a top video-sharing platform, with YouTube Kids being advertised as child-friendly. Current estimates indicate that YouTube usage exceeds one billion hours each day and over two billion viewers every month.

Compared to conventional social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, YouTube has a unique reliance on videos with interactive features, including 'likes' and 'comments,' which build online anonymous relationships.

YouTube fuses the traditional media elements of television, movies, and music with the interactive elements of digital media.”

Instagram uses both photos and videos, whereas Facebook depends on posts; therefore, each platform must be independently studied for its distinctive user impact. This is especially important for YouTube, which is most likely to be consumed during the early stages of human development.  

YouTube usage in children has been associated with an increased risk of anxiety and inhibitory control. Nevertheless, there remains a lack of research on the age of first use and duration/frequency of use among children in relation to future emotional issues.

About the study

The data analyzed in the current study were obtained from the Kids Cohort for Understanding Internet Addiction Risk Factors in Early Childhood (K-CURE). K-CURE is a pioneering prospective study in South Korea that aims to evaluate the effects of media exposure on young children.

K-CURE comprises nearly 200 children between eight and 11 years of age. These children have been monitored for development from the first year of the study, in 2014, when they were between two and five years of age.

In 2018, the child's temperament was assessed based on a parent-reported survey of children between the ages of five and eight. YouTube usage in this population, along with their emotional and behavioral characteristics, was evaluated in 2021.

Usage patterns and outcomes

The mean daily usage of YouTube was over two hours, at 69 minutes, whereas the mean weekly usage was five days. While gaming was the most common use, others included do-it-yourself (DIY), film, and animation videos.

Age of onset

Over 20% of young children were using YouTube by age four, whereas 30.3% of children between eight and nine years of age were using YouTube.  

Previous studies in children six years or younger found the age at first use was less than two years. Thus, the younger the population studied, the lower the age of usage onset is likely to be.

Persistence

Young children with the temperamental trait called persistence, which refers to their likelihood of persevering in the absence of rewards, were less likely to use YouTube. This may contribute to YouTube usage patterns among these children.

YouTube algorithms suggest other videos based on current viewing, which may increase consumption. However, persistence and self-control appear to be involved in reducing YouTube usage among this group of children.

Frequency

The earlier the age at which use begins, the higher the subsequent frequency of use. YouTube use at younger ages was also associated with a greater likelihood of emotional/behavioral problems. Previous studies on smartphone usage have revealed similar trends.

Infancy and early childhood are associated with high neuroplasticity; therefore, digital media exposure during this period can have significant and irreversible effects on neurodevelopment and behavioral outcomes. These include poorer thinking, delayed language skills, and impaired emotional and behavioral regulation. Frequent use of smartphones may also damage the child's self-control, thereby increasing their risk of addiction.

Emotional and behavioral problems were less likely, with a higher duration of use. However, this might be due to the subgroup of children with very long durations of use having very low scores on the administered test.

Another explanation could be that during 2021, YouTube was frequently used as an educational tool due to pandemic-related school shutdowns. This may have contributed to YouTube's positive impact on this subgroup.

Conclusions

YouTube usage in early childhood may be modulated by traits associated with persistence, thus implying higher self-regulation. Previous smartphone studies have reported that children use smartphones at very frequent intervals but for very short durations. This will likely adversely impact their development and concentration, thus making these children more distractable.

The inverse correlation of YouTube usage duration with emotional and behavioral problems contradicts previous smartphone studies. Pandemic-associated viewing of educational content may have contributed to this observation; however, additional studies are needed to elucidate the validity of this finding.

The results could indicate significant traits or attitudes necessary for children and adolescents when engaging with platforms in the current digital era.”

Taken together, the study findings provide vital information for further investigation while also highlighting differences and similarities with previous research on smartphone use. Future research must examine the content consumed using objective viewing data, including geographical areas with lower digital device access.

Journal reference:
  • Kim, D., Lee, S., Kim, H., et al. (2024). From temperament to YouTube: exploring the link between childhood temperament, YouTube usage patterns, and emotional/behavioral problems among children. BMC Public Health. doi:10.1186/s12889-024-19011-w.
Dr. Liji Thomas

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Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.

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