Screen time as learning time?

By on 08-01-2019

Dr. Nicole explains the pros and cons of device use on your child’s cognitive development and academic performance

With so many games and apps promoted as “learning” and “education” oriented, it can be difficult for parents to sort out which types of screen time activities may be helpful, and which might cause problems. While some digital media activities can certainly be supportive of learning and development, others are not. There are also concerns about the overall amount of time spent on devices, and how that impacts a child’s school performance and overall functioning.

Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons around screen time and learning.

Technology certainly provides many opportunities for learning. Just having access to the almost infinite amount of knowledge available on the internet provides opportunities for gaining knowledge and developing new skills. Beyond that, there are many educational games and activities for children of all ages that help teach and strengthen reading, math, and writing skills. Children and teens can also access quality programs to learn everything from new languages to robotics and virtually anything in between. 

Some video games encourage the development of cognitive skills, specifically visual attention, processing speed, and the ability to mentally rotate objects in space. In the classroom setting, educational programs and apps can allow for more individualized learning, as students can move through content at a pace appropriate for them, and receive extra practice or more advanced challenges in a subject area depending on their personal needs. 

While there are certainly many benefits that can come from using screen time for learning, there are also potential problems that can result. The primary concern is simply the amount of time children are spending on devices daily, with data showing that children over the age of 8 spend an average of 7 or more hours on screens per day. Even when used for learning, this amount of screen time can cause problems with vision, attention, mood, memory, behavior, sleep, and more. Research also shows that while some cognitive skills can be strengthened with online learning games, higher level skills such as critical thinking, imagination, and the ability to reflect can actually get weaker.

Research also shows that while some cognitive skills can be strengthened with online learning games, higher level skills such as critical thinking, imagination, and the ability to reflect can actually get weaker.

There are also concerns about screen time and vision development, as more children are requiring glasses sooner due to almost exclusively using their near-point vision during screen time. Research has also shown that while keyboard skills can be beneficial, there are significant benefits to writing things out by hand. Students tend to process information and recall it better when they have taken notes on paper, for example, compared to typing them on the computer. Handwriting is also linked to reading skills and fine motor functioning, so it is an important skill to foster. 

We know that the more time children spend in front of screens, the more problems they have with attention and memory function. Fast-paced learning and video games in particular can lead to problems with sustaining attention, sticking with challenges, and delaying gratification. Even just an hour or more each day on these kinds of games can worsen attention and impulsivity in children. It doesn’t get much better for older students, either, as young adults in college report worse attention and more hyperactivity and impulsivity as time spent on electronic devices increases!

Fast-paced learning and video games in particular can lead to problems with sustaining attention, sticking with challenges, and delaying gratification. Even just an hour or more each day on these kinds of games can worsen attention and impulsivity in children.

It’s important to note that use of digital media for children under the age of 2 is linked to poorer language and cognitive development. While there are games and apps marketed toward “young learners” in this age group, parents should know that this type of stimulation is not helpful for laying solid foundations for learning and development. In the first years of life, children need interaction with adults, playtime with toys, and other real-world experiences to support their learning and language development.

Parents and professionals should also be aware that despite the massive increase in educationally-focused content and apps available for use in schools and homes, there is little research to support significant improvement in educational outcomes for students. So, while there can certainly be benefits for learning, in the big picture there doesn’t seem to be a significant educational advantage to having students use devices for learning. No device or program can take the place of a quality teacher or parent providing information, practice, and guidance for learning any skill!

No device or program can take the place of a quality teacher or parent providing information, practice, and guidance for learning any skill!

With all this in mind, here are some practical screen time strategies parents can use to support their child’s learning and development this school year and beyond:

  • Make sure that children are taking regular breaks from screen time to use their distance vision and to get some movement. Too much time in front of screens can cause eye strain and reduce physical activity kids need for proper brain and body development. Have children get up and move around and look at things further away at least once every 20-30 minutes.
  • Choose educational games and activities that are developmentally appropriate, and make sure kids are sticking with the activities they choose. Jumping around from one app or activity to the next, without finishing something first, leads to more impulsivity and worse frustration tolerance. When children encounter a challenge, they should be encouraged to work through it, with or without adult assistance, before moving on to something else. 
  • Schedule time for activities other than screen time throughout the day, so children are engaged in real-world learning and growing experiences. Children of all ages (even teens) need opportunities for movement, socialization, time in nature, and even being bored. Constant stimulation from screens, even when apps are learning-oriented, is not a good thing.
  • Avoid apps and programs that are overstimulating with lots of fast paced graphics, sounds, and constantly changing content. The focus of a digital educational activity should be on the information or task being learned, not on distracting “extras”. In fact, too much overstimulation from graphics and action reduces learning and educational benefits.
  • Engage in learning activities, including reading, with your child – especially younger children. Read digital books with them just as you would a real book. This exposes them to the language, interaction, and other benefits of adult engagement around the story or activity.
  • Encourage handwriting as well as keyboard skills. Make sure that older children and teens aren’t doing all of their writing on a keyboard. Change things up and have them handwrite notes and assignments sometimes.
  • Avoid media multitasking. Have children engage with one device or form of media at a time. Too often, children and teens are checking their phone, while watching a video, while scrolling through social media – and this is not a good thing for their brains! Use one device at a time, and complete a task before moving on to something else.
  • Focus home time on non-screen activities, especially if your child is spending a large portion of their school day on electronic devices and learning applications. 

Remember that balance is key, and time spent on non-electronic activities is more beneficial for learning and academic performance than time spent on devices. 

Dr. Nicole Beurkens

Nicole Beurkens, PhD, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Nutritionist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of children with serious developmental and mental health conditions. She has successfully treated over 1,000 children and families during her 20 years in practice using nutrition, lifestyle, and mental health techniques.

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