What is the research on screen time for children?

There continue to be conflicting views about the recommendations to give to children on screen time (the use of “screen” media including television, smart phones and computer games). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended two hours or less screen time per day for most children. Two recently published studies investigate this recommendation and whether the amount of screen time has any impact on children’s behaviour and school readiness.

The first study, published  in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, examines whether screen time that exceeds the AAP recommendations affects children’s school readiness, and specifically whether this varies according to family income.

Andrew Ribner and colleagues looked at data from 807 kindergarten (Year 1) children of diverse backgrounds. Their parents reported family income, as well as the number of hours of television their children watch on a daily basis. Video game, tablet and smartphone use were not included. The children were assessed using measures of maths, knowledge of letters and words and executive function. Results showed that watching more television than recommended by the AAP is negatively associated with maths and executive function, but not with letter and word knowledge. This association was found to increase as family income decreased.

For older children, screen time may not be strongly associated with any behaviour problems. Research published in Psychiatric Quarterly investigated the links between the amount of screen time and risky behavioural outcomes for 6,089 young people aged 12–18 from Florida.

The sample was divided into four groups: abstainers (those who reported spending no time watching television or using other media); low users (no more than two hours of screen time per day, in line with AAP guidance); moderate users (three to six hours per day); and excessive users (six or more hours per day). Christopher J Fergusson, who conducted the study, found that moderate screen use was not associated with any risky behaviour. Even excessive screen use was only weakly associated with negative outcomes related to delinquency, reduced grades and depression only and at levels unlikely to be significant.

Source: Family socioeconomic status moderates associations between television viewing and school readiness skills (April 2017), Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics (38:3)

Everything in moderation: moderate use of screens unassociated with child behavior problems (February 2017), Psychiatric Quarterly.

TV shows help parents teach early maths skills

A recent report by WestEd examined the effects of maths-related online activities and parental support materials from the US TV shows Sid the Science Kid, Curious George, and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That on preschool children’s maths skills and their parents’ ability to support maths learning at home.

Two Head Start centres in a low-income area in California were randomly assigned to serve either as an experimental or control group for eight weeks. A total of 90 parent/child pairs were involved, with two-thirds eligible for free- or reduced-price lunches. The mean age of the children was 4 years, 5 months.

All children learned the same maths concepts addressed in the TV shows (numbers and base ten, measurement and data, and geometry and spatial sense). However, the experimental group were assigned to use related online maths material and parental support materials at home for 30 minutes a day, four days a week, as well as attending a weekly meeting addressing that week’s theme.

Post-tests showed that the experimental group scored significantly better than the control group in numerical sense. Parental awareness of their children’s maths ability increased over time, and parent surveys showed that they felt guided and supported by the meetings and competent to continue to help their children at home.

Source: Learning with PBS KIDS: A Study of Family Engagement and Early Mathematics Achievement (2015), WestEd.

Screen addicts missing out on GCSE potential

A new article in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity investigated the association between GCSE results and three aspects of the way that teenagers had spent their time when they were 14.5 years old:

  1. Physical activity
  2. Screen time sedentary behaviour (TV/films, internet, computer games)
  3. Non-screen sedentary behaviour (reading, homework)

The study was based on 845 teenagers from Cambridgeshire and Suffolk. Data was taken from the ROOTS study, which aims to determine the relative contributions of genetic, physiological, psychological, and social variables to well-being and mental health during adolescence. Trained researchers administered questionnaires, conducted physical measurements, and gave instructions regarding physical activity measurements at participating schools.

The participants’ median daily screen time was approximately 1.9 hours. The authors found that teenagers reporting an extra hour of daily screen time at 14.5 years old achieved 9.3 fewer GCSE points (almost two grades lower) at 16. All three separate screen behaviours were independently negatively associated with academic performance.

However, participants doing an extra hour of daily homework and reading (up to four hours/day) achieved 23.1 more GCSE points (an increase of four grades). Physical activity did not appear to be either detrimental or beneficial to academic performance.

Other findings included that boys were more active and less sedentary than girls, and boys reported more screen time but less non-screen sedentary time than girls. Girls had higher academic performance than boys.

The authors noted some limitations in the study, including the possibility that less-academic pupils are likely to be doing the less-academic subjects and may be given less homework.

Source: Revising on the Run or Studying on the Sofa: Prospective Associations Between Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour, and Exam Results in British Adolescents (2015), International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 12(106).

Powering up educational media at home

This report from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop presents findings from a study on families’ educational media use. Data was collected through a national survey of more than 1,500 parents of children aged 2-10. The survey covered children’s home use of television, DVDs, video games, tablets, and other electronic devices, and investigated how much of the media content was considered educational (media use for homework or other school assignments was excluded). Some key findings of the study were:

  • 54% of respondents said their child “often” takes specific actions as a result of their exposure to educational media, such as talking about something they saw (38%), engaging in imaginative play based on it (34%), asking questions about it (26%), or asking to do a project or activity inspired by it (18%).
  • As children get older, the amount of time they spend with screen media goes up (from 1 hour and 37 minutes to 2 hours and 36 minutes a day), and the proportion that is considered educational goes down (from 78% to 27%).
  • Parents do not believe their children learn as much from educational media about science as they do about other subject areas.

The authors emphasise that no parent’s estimate of their child’s media use is likely to be exact. However, they say that when dealing with children aged 10 and under, time and frequency estimates from parents are more likely to be reliable than those obtained from the child.

Source: Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America (2014), The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.