Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Memory is a cognitive skill that plays a very important role in the lives of children and adults. Our brain’s ability to hold onto information in the short and long terms is key to allowing us to function in our lives. Children especially need to have well functioning memory systems in order to support proper learning and development in all areas.
As a parent, you’re well aware of how important memory is for your children. It’s common for parents to feel frustrated about children not remembering items for school, the important thing they needed to do, or information required for a test.
As the days tick by, and kids spend increasing amounts of time using technology, more and more parents are beginning to wonder if more screen time has any kind of effect on memory, and whether screens are connected to kids’ memory loss.
What types of memory are important for kids?
There are several main types of memory that are required for healthy life function and relationships, including the following general categories:
This allows us to retain information about our sensory experiences, such as how things feel, smell, or taste.
Remembering a phone number someone just told you and holding onto the directions you just were given are two examples of short-term memory, which by definition is information we hold onto for a brief period of time (about 30 seconds).
Working memory is an important part of short-term memory. This type of memory allows us to hold onto information in order to do something with it in the moment.
An example would be telling your child to go upstairs, get their shoes, and bring them back to you. They would need to use their working memory to hold onto those 3 directions in order to complete them.
This includes anything our brain retains for longer than about 30 seconds. Things like remembering people’s faces, remembering your home address, and recalling an event that happened years ago fall into this category. There are several different types of long-term memory specific to information like facts, life experiences, and procedures for doing tasks.
Screen time can contribute to memory problems for children
A child’s capacity to form and retain these three main types of memories is critical for their overall development, learning, and growth. As children and teens are spending more time on digital media, there is increasing concern about the impact screens have on brain function in general, and memory specifically.
While this is an area that needs much more research, let’s look at what the studies tell us so far:
1. Passive versus active use of devices and media makes a difference.
When kids are actively engaged in games and content on devices, their overall memory for things like vocabulary and facts is higher than when they are passively watching something on the screen.
2. Higher amounts of screen time are connected to worse cognitive abilities (including memory), less sleep, and less physical activity.
The more time kids spend on digital devices and media, the worse they tend to perform on cognitive tasks such as learning new information, remembering important things, and solving problems.
The increased screen time alone seems to create these issues, but lost sleep and low levels of physical activity also contribute to poorer memory and thinking skills overall.
3. Working memory tends to be worse in young children who spend more time on devices.
The more time spent on screens (in this study that meant over 1 hour per day), the worse the scores on working memory. This is problematic for many reasons, as a strong working memory is needed for school and life success.
4. Pre-teens who don’t get enough good quality sleep at night are at higher risk of poor brain development and cognitive problems (including memory) during the day.
We know that excessive screen time use, especially at bedtime or during the night, causes kids to get less quality sleep than what they need. This loss of sleep from device use can significantly impact their abilities during the day time; especially for learning in school, regulating their behavior and mood, and engaging appropriately with others.
5. The current generation of children may be at higher risk for development of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in adulthood due to excessive screen use.
While this is a hypothesis based on current research, it does raise a red flag for long term concerns. If children continue excessive screen time use throughout childhood and into adulthood, it is possible their brains may be changed in negative ways, including severe memory issues like dementia later on.
All the more reason to be thinking about healthy device use for children now.
What can parents do to help?
If you’re concerned about supporting your child’s memory, and the negative impact that screen time can have, there are several practical things you can do.
Sleep is incredibly important for all of us, but especially kids. To help them along the way, make sure they’re getting the age-appropriate amount of sleep they need. In addition, keep devices out of the way before bedtime, so they aren’t interfering with your child’s sleep. Turning off devices at least an hour before bed and keeping them out of the bedroom at night are two important strategies to support sleep for kids.
How can screen time be made more productive?
- Focus on more interactive games and activities on devices, as opposed to passive viewing or scrolling.
- Talk with your kids about what apps are best and why, and work together to set up time limits that support active, rather than passive, use of screens.
- Find apps that encourage your kids to learn or be creative while having fun.
- Set age-appropriate time limits for devices to encourage a balance of activities throughout the day.
One of the best things we can do to support child brain development and function (including memory) is make sure that kids have a good blend of activities in their daily life.
This means some screen time combined with physical activity, chores, social time with other people in person, and time for non-screen play.
As both a parent and professional I understand the challenges that come with managing screen time, which is why I highly recommend using a parental control app that allows you to easily and effectively set and enforce device limits. Qustodio is the app I use and recommend, always in conversation with your children about how you’re using it and why, in addition to evolving the plan together as they grow and mature.
When you’re a parent, you want to do everything you can to support your child’s brain development and memory. Taking these simple steps now will help keep their memory systems working well today and into the future.