Children are exposed to more digital media today than ever before, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted so much of their educational and social lives online. While scientists continue to study the effect of this exposure on neurological and cognitive development, there is widespread agreement among the experts that it’s essential for parents to limit not only the amount of screen time in which kids engage, but what kind of content they access and when they access it.
“Attention, information processing, emotion regulation, critical thinking, memory, language, literacy, and more—all of these cognitive processes are impacted by the way children’s brains develop,” says Dr. Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, President of Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. “Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex ways that digital media affect brain structure and function in young people.”
With that in mind, Children and Screens has invited some of the world’s leading neuroscientists, clinicians, and researchers to share their top tips for navigating the dangers and opportunities presented by screen use when it comes to maximizing cognitive development in kids. Read 10 key pieces of advice below!
1. FIND BALANCE
The brain is particularly sensitive and adaptable from infancy through early adulthood, and frequent and persistent exposure to digital devices can negatively impact children’s cognitive and social development. At the same time, studies have shown that restricting the use of these digital devices and rewarding non-digital activities (like in-person play and interactions with friends and family) can have beneficial effects for the brain. This doesn’t mean that parents need to eliminate digital devices entirely from their lives, but rather that it’s important to balance any use of supportive technology with critical real-life social behavior and the necessary time required to engage in thoughtful deliberation. –Jordan Grafman, Ph.D., Shirley Ryan AbilityLab & Northwestern University
Fluid cognitive functioning is the capacity to learn, solve problems, and adapt to novel situations. In a recent study using the ABCD data set, we discovered that weekly screen media activity significantly predicted poorer fluid cognitive function. Therefore, limiting the engagement in screen media activity and instead engaging in extracurricular activities (which was associated with improved fluid cognitive function) can help youth age 9-11 to develop cognitive skills that are highly predictive of future successful and balanced lives. –Martin P. Paulus, M.D., University of California, San Diego.
2. QUALITY AND QUANTITY
While it’s good to be aware of the number of hours the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends regarding screen time, physical activity, and sleep, parents need to keep in mind that the quality of this time matters, too. When it comes to screen use, the kind of content (aggressive vs. educational) and timing (afterschool vs. before bedtime) are just as important to monitor as the amount of overall time spent with the device. With young children, parents can provide alternative activities like playtime or reading so that kids don’t “escape” to their screens, while with older children, parents can explain the risks and ask their kids what they find to be a reasonable use pattern, which will intrinsically motivate them to comply. –Ofir Turel, Ph.D., Professor of Information Systems and Decision Sciences, California State University, Fullerton.
3. CUT THE INTERRUPTIONS AND MULTITASKING
Frequent interruptions caused by technology can have negative impacts when it comes to a child’s ability to learn. Studies indicate that turning off the internet connection or moving the phone away when studying increases efficacy, while muting notifications can decrease interruptions and help with concentration when studying. Working with children to set rules about screen use and limiting the interruptions caused by digital devices can help them better understand the rationale for those rules and help with compliance. –Marc N. Potenza, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry, Child Study and Neuroscience, Yale School of Medicine.
4. BOOK TIME FOR BOOKS
Research shows that the more book-length works (especially fiction) that children read, the higher their ultimate levels of reading accomplishment. However, these days adults and children alike are spending less time reading than they used to, in part due to the rise of social media and other onscreen activities that divert our attention. In order to ensure your children develop a love of reading and reap the intellectual and creative rewards that come with it, it’s essential for parents to model the joys of pleasure reading and set aside time for full-length books. –Naomi S. Baron, PhD, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at American University and author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio.
5. QUESTION OF THE DAY
Start the tradition of having kids take turns asking a “Question of the day” according to their interests at dinner. It could be anything from how many years ago the dinosaurs went extinct to the 3 top artists on the pop charts today. Try asking a question at the dinner table each night. Instead of looking for Google, Siri, or Alexa to fully ask and answer your kids’ questions, encourage them to try to reflect themselves on what they think the answer might be. This simple practice will instill a habit of critical and creative thinking. Once you’ve all had a chance to figure out what the answer might be, that’s when you turn to a device to see how right (or wrong) you were—it’s even better if you model reading a full article about it, instead of just your web search’s first quick answer! -Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra, DO, President and Founder, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.
6. TOUCH, SEE, LEARN
While there’s a wide variety of content parents should avoid for their children (fast-paced programs or apps with intense action, for instance, may lead to cognitive fatigue and train kids’ attention to be more drawn to simple visual salience such as motion rather than the more difficult task of attending to people or narratives), there are positive options out there, as well. Parents should look for age-appropriate content that encourages cognitive development and learning (toddlers who learn to interact with a touchscreen earlier, for example, learn to make controlled finger movements such as stacking blocks earlier). Watching TV or playing an app with your child will maximize the chance they can transfer what they’re seeing into the real-world and can also stimulate conversation and social communication skills such as following your gaze and pointing gestures. –Professor Tim J. Smith, Head of the Cognition in Naturalistic Environments (CINE) Lab at Birkbeck, University of London.
7. POWER DOWN AT BEDTIME
Excessive screen media activity (SMA) use in youth and adolescents may impair brain and cognitive development due to its link with sleep problems. Studies have increasingly reported associations between SMA use and chronic insomnia (commonly defined as having difficulty falling or staying asleep, inadequate sleep, waking too early, and/or not being able to get back to sleep after awakenings), and sleep problems alone have been found to alter brain structure and function, which might exert influences on relevant clinical measures including cognitive development. Although it remains unclear whether the relationship between excessive SMA use and chronic insomnia is directional or bidirectional, restricting use of electronics in the bedroom and SMA around bedtime is an important first step towards minimizing negative impacts of SMA use on sleep and/or neurocognitive development. –Yihong Zhao, Professor of Data Sciences, Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
8. KEEP IT INTERACTIVE
Parents should note that video game play can promote children’s cognitive abilities such as metacognition, which is the ability to reflect back on and evaluate one’s understanding of content or a given task. In their recently published study, Ashley Ricker and Rebekah Richert found that 6-10 year olds who played commercial video games high in interactivity showed greater metacognitive awareness than those who played games that were low in interactivity. Interactivity here referred to the extent to which a game allowed players to adapt the game for their specific goals and interests (e.g. changing the level of difficulty of play based on the player’s success within the game); flexibly move between tasks presented within the game (e.g. completing sub-tasks within a level non-sequentially); and offered feedback about the efficacy of players’ moves in real time. –Fran Blumberg, Division of Psychological and Educational Services, Fordham University.
While there is consensus in the research literature that a moderate amount of digital gameplay is related to enhanced fluid intelligence in 6-to-12-year-old children, not all games are created equal. Parents should choose games that require in-the-moment active and strategic thinking, provide players with choices and include opportunities for experimentation, and adapt to the current skill level of the player. Furthermore, parents should find opportunities to participate in their children’s gameplay, as parent involvement is optimal for intellectual development. –Jessica Caporaso, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Stuart Marcovitch, PhD, professor at University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
9. LISTEN UP
Parents are encouraged to engage in open conversations about technology use with their children and show an interest in their online activities. Ask them what they do when they spend time online, for instance, or play their favorite games with them. This will help create an understanding environment in which children will feel free to share their online experiences without the fear of being judged. –Dr. Daria J. Kuss, Associate Professor in Psychology, Nottingham Trent University.
10. DON’T WAIT, COMMUNICATE
Several recent studies point at the relationship between screen exposure and decreased engagement/organization of brain regions related to executive functions. In order to increase the engagement of these executive functions, parents should increase the level of communication and eye contact with children even when they’re utilizing screens. Experts recommend talking to your children and asking questions while they’re watching TV, chatting with them about the characters that appear on screen, and encouraging them to use their devices for research and educational purposes that you can discuss with them. Most importantly, during an important activity or conversation, move your and your child’s devices aside so that you can experience the moment together. –Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, Ph.D., Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, Technion Israel.
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, enhancing human capital in the field, informing and educating the public, and advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness. For more information, head over to childrenandscreens.com.
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