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Sinead Rhodes

Screen time and child development

23 June 2017 | by Sinead Rhodes

When we hear about children’s screen-time in the media the suggestion is almost always that watching television has a negative effect on children’s developmental outcomes. As a developmental psychologist, this has always seemed a very simplistic conclusion to me.

If there are negative consequences, what exactly is driving that?

Do we just take the report of a negative link at face value and simply write off (or seriously limit) television watching for children, or could it be that there are particular aspects of television programmes which are associated with any reported impairment?

There has been a suggestion in the literature for a while that some features of programmes such as fast-pacing or fantastical content may be associated with impairment in children’s cognitive function. These aspects of thinking known as ‘executive functions’ involve the ability to think flexibility, plan tasks, and hold and organise information in memory. 

I am currently writing up some data I have collected over the last year or so looking at the impact of watching ‘fantastical’ television programmes on children’s executive functions.

Fantastical programs tend to include content which violate expectations – think Spongebob!

The content of these programmes make it difficult for the child to comprehend and incorporate these events into their existing mental representations, and some researchers have suggested that the consequence of this is to exhaust cognitive resources that we use to engage in tasks - particularly executive functions.

The idea that has therefore been put forward is that watching these type of programmes zap children’s attentional resources.

The preliminary analysis that I have conducted on my own data suggests that groups of children aged 5-6 years who watched a fantastical programme (a 23 minute episode of Little Einstein’s) showed impairment in executive functions after watching the programme.

In contrast, an age and sex- matched group of children who watched a non-fantastical programme (a 23 minute episode of Little Bill) showed no such impairment.

I presented some findings of the first phase of this study at the BPS Developmental Section conference at the end of last year and had some interesting questions posed to me.

One person reflected on whether impaired executive functions, arguably caused by an exhaustion of attentional resources observed in the short-term, necessarily led to impairment in those cognitive resources in the long-term. Indeed, could the cognitive taxing of resources actually lead to improved cognitive function in the long-run?

The idea put forward here is that these aspects of cognitive functions are ‘exercised’ so to speak, with the possibility of long-term gain for short-term pain. Unfortunately I can’t actually answer this question with my data as the study testing was conducted at one time point only.

And therein lies the most significant problem we have in this area. There is a real lack of longitudinal studies conducted to ascertain whether television watching per se, or specific aspects of those programmes cause cognitive or other types of impairments.

Another issue concerns the insufficient evidence we have across developmental domains, and our knowledge in this area would undoubtedly be strengthened by research conducted across different aspects of children’s development (e.g. physical, cognitive, social).

Developmental timing is also key – we need research that includes children at a range of different stages of development.  

What we clearly need are quality studies in this area.

Those kinds of studies aren’t cheap to fund however, and they also can’t be done quickly.

But if we are to come to an evidenced based conclusion as to the influence of screen-time on children’s development these studies are vitally necessary.

I'm not the only one who thinks so either.

At the beginning of this year, a group of experts, including psychologists, educationalists and neuroscientists, wrote an open letter to the Guardian entitled ‘Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence not hype’.

This letter had been written in response to a previous piece, published by the paper in December on behalf of another group of academics, which suggested that:

“…children’s health and wellbeing were being undermined by the decline of outdoor play [and] increasingly screen-based lifestyles…”

The essence of the letter - and a vital point worth making - was that while there is certainly an important debate to be had about screen time, we need to conduct quality research to support this discussion, examining the issue in its full complexity, before the government is convinced to implement guidelines on screen-based technology on the basis of little to no evidence. 

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