Children’s attention spans at risk from too much screen time

Can’t we play a game now? flickingerbrad

From iPads to Xboxes, the modern child has a vast array of electronic media to help alleviate boredom, pass the time and play online games. Parents may often wonder about the impact such activities can have on their children’s brain development, behaviour and learning.

Now Labour’s shadow education minister Tristram Hunt has suggested that children need lessons in how to concentrate, because of their increased use of social media.

As always these issues are complex, have been discussed emotively in the press and can be easily misunderstood. Television viewing is an excellent example of this. Most studies find a small but negative link between total numbers of hours of television viewing and academic achievement.

But when research studies control for characteristics of the child such as IQ and socioeconomic status those differences usually disappear.

In addition, the content of what is viewed is also highly-relevant, with viewing of educational programmes positively linked to academic achievement. Viewing of entertainment programmes is negatively linked to academic achievement.

The links are negative when television displaces more cognitively enriching experiences, such as asking questions of a parent or grandparent. But they are positive when television provides experiences that are not readily available to the children through other means.

Tetris teaching

The use of electronic media, especially gaming, can improve cognitive development in children, especially visual and spatial skills, mental rotation (required by the game Tetris) and problem solving.

Keep on at it. Jurischk, CC BY-NC-SA

For example, adults gamers have better hand-eye coordination and reaction time than non-gamers. Research also shows that these positive developments can be demonstrated in children. One study found that after just 11 sessions of playing Tetris for 30 minutes, primary school-aged children demonstrated improved scores on a paper and pencil test of mental rotation, compared to a control group who did not play Tetris.

Despite the positive evidence for the impact of electronic media on cognitive skills, a key issue is whether those skills transfer beyond gaming into everyday life. There is evidence that viewing educational TV programmes can enhance transference to other learning. One US study showed that watching a maths programme in schools for six weeks led to improved performance on maths problems not shown in the programme.

Other researchers have found that playing computer games improved adolescents’ performance on computer-based educational tasks. In one study, students either played with a puzzle or adventure computer game. The students who played the computer game performed better in a subsequent problem-solving task than those who played with the puzzle.

These results are consistent with the view that exposure to electronic media may facilitate learning of other similar tasks, and may also allow users to learn more effectively from exposure to electronic media in the future.

Losing attention

But despite the many potential benefits, concerns still remain about the impact on attention spans. One study found greater TV viewing among children with attention problems. Yet the relationship disappeared when the researchers controlled for differences in maternal education, which was lower in mothers of children with poorer attention.

Oher research has found a link between TV exposure and subsequent attention. One important study found that TV exposure at age 14 did predict attention problems at age 16, even after controlling for important child and family variables. Children who watched more than three hours a day were at greatest risk.

Few researchers have examined links between other electronic media and attention, but one study did find an association between gaming and attention. Adolescents gaming for more than one hour a day displayed poorer attention, but there was no association between internet use and attention.

While there are obvious benefits to the use of electronic media, there is also the potential for a negative impact of over-exposure on attention. Yet with suitable content – educational rather than entertainment – appropriate control and parental supervision, it should be possible to derive benefits from electronic media while avoiding its detrimental influences.

But it is difficult to determine whether interventions focused on enhancing children’s attention will be effective or are even necessary. The crux of the matter is that the children of today and the workers of tomorrow are going to be required to work in a more fragmented and multi-tasking environment requiring shorter overall concentration.

It is sobering, however, to reflect on over 40 years of research on parental monitoring of media use which suggests that less than 50% of parents enforce usage limits or discuss content with their children. I therefore encourage parents not to worry, but to monitor their children’s use of electronic media and take time to understand what Angry Birds is actually all about.

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