As part of Children and Screens’ ongoing support and curation of cutting-edge, objective, scientifically-rigorous interdisciplinary research, we invited nearly 140 preeminent experts from 10 different disciplines in 22 workgroups to compile the latest research on the effects of media on growth and development, cognition and mental health in toddlers, children and adolescents.
The resulting findings were aggregated and published in a special supplement, “Children, Adolescents, and Screens: What We Know and What We Need to Learn”, in the highly-regarded journal Pediatrics, released on November 1, 2017.
Subsequent new research has also been synthesized and presented where applicable.
Media used by children have long been thought to have both positive and negative effects on knowledge and cognitive skills. With respect to screen media, most research concerns television, but there has been a growing amount of work on interactive screen media, including computers, gaming consoles, and mobile screen devices. The impact of media use on infants under 2 years of age is different than it is on older children because infants and toddlers are largely not able to comprehend the media content. Screens have a distracting effect on infants and parents and interfere with parent-child interactions. Screen exposure in infancy is associated with poorer language and cognitive development. From about 2 years of age and older, children become increasingly able to comprehend screen media content. As a consequence, educational media can effectively teach knowledge and cognitive skills. A large amount of research has found a positive impact of educational screen media on cognitive development. Entertainment television and computer games, on the other hand, may have a negative impact, especially while children are learning to read. This negative impact is likely due to time displacement of entertainment reading during ages when reading is still difficult. Use of entertainment media with violent content, moreover, is associated with impulsive and aggressive behavior that in turn can create problems in school. Games played on computers and other screen devices can enhance specific cognitive skills if successful game play teaches and exercises those skills. Overall, screen media have both positive and negative effects on cognitive development depending on children’s age and the type of content consumed.
Do baby videos and touch screen apps make babies smarter?
Infants under about 2 years of age learn little from baby videos. Time spent with screen media takes away from valuable time spent playing with physical toys and social interactions leading to poorer language and cognitive development. There is very little research on the effects of touch screen apps on cognition and learning in infants, so we do not yet know whether there may be positive or negative effects of using them.
Is reading development influenced by TV and computer games?
Educational programs and games can increase children’s interest in reading and also teach valuable literacy skills. Large amounts of TV viewing during the years when children are learning to read, however, are associated with poorer reading achievement.
Can screen media teach specific cognitive skills?
Yes. Numerous experiments have shown that young adults can acquire increases in particular attentional, spatial, and memory skills from playing computer games that emphasize those skills. There is some evidence that this finding applies to children as well.
- Infants are exposed to large amounts of screen media well before they are able to comprehend the content. This exposure (especially television) is distracting to the infants and disrupts their behavior and sustained toy play. Television and interactive screen media (such as smart phones) distract parents and reduce the quality of parent-child interactions. The development of language and attentional skills are negatively associated with amount of screen media exposure before 2 years of age.
- Once children can comprehend screen media content (by about 2 ½ years) television and interactive screen media can influence their knowledge. Educational media have been shown to be effective in enhancing educational knowledge and skills, but what remains unclear are the best methods of using screens to teach very young children, while at the same time ensuring socio-emotional, sensory, and physical (motor skills) development.
- Use of violent entertainment media is associated with impulsive and aggressive behavior which in turn may induce problems at home, in school, and with friends.
- Computer games and other types of software can enhance particular cognitive skills if those skills are necessary to successfully play the games or use the software. More research needs to be conducted on short and long-term impacts on executive function (e.g. attention and control of cognitive function).
- Interactive screen media can have positive or negative impacts, depending on the age, developmental stage and temperament of the child, dose of media use, content and type of device, and how the child is using it. More research needs to be conducted about digital media’s effects on critical thinking, one's ability to focus, attention, conceptualization, working memory and short- and long-term memory.
Guidelines for Parents
- Limit TV exposure (especially background TV) before age 2 years.
- Be aware of the impact of your own media use on your toddlers.
- Interact with toddlers and touchscreen devices (including e-books) in the same way you would interact with children while reading traditional books.
- Media diets should be rich in educational content, but heavy screen media use should be discouraged.
- Science of learning approaches should be used in creating educational media programming. Much current app development is ad hoc and intuitive.
Anderson, D.R. & Subrahmanyam, K. (2017). Digital Screen Media and Cognitive Development. Pediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758C
The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.