Researchers from Brown University have found that children who spent more time watching TV, playing video games, or using a smartphone were less likely to finish their homework and, perhaps more ominously, showed less interest in learning overall.
The forthcoming study, an abstract of which was presented Oct. 21 at the American Academy of Pediatrics conference in San Francisco, used data from the National Survey of Children’s Health 2011-2012 to measure what they call childhood “flourishing,” or positive behaviors such as completing tasks, showing initiative, and interacting with others.
Researchers looked at data from more than 64,000 children between ages 6 and 17, as reported by their parents or guardians, and determined that kids who spent more time using digital devices spent less time on their assignments. The manuscript is still being prepared for submission to scientific journals.
Boston-area child psychologists and behavioral experts said they’ve long assumed excessive media consumption had a negative effect on the developmental process, but this study provides data to support their opinions.
“It makes sense. We’ve said that for a long time the more kids spend on electronic devices, it’s probably not great for them, but we didn’t have a lot of data that said screen time is really all that bad,” said Dr. Ellen Braaten, associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“This study validates that idea that when kids are doing stuff other than that which is developmentally enhancing, other things aren’t getting done,” she continued.
Researchers looked at four categories of time spent on digital media: 31 percent of kids were exposed to less than two hours of digital media per day; 36 percent were exposed for two to four hours per day; 17 percent hit four to six hours; and another 16 percent were exposed to six or more hours per day.
For every additional two hours of screen time per day not related to schoolwork, researchers found a statistically significant decrease in the odds of a child finishing his or her homework, according to study author Dr. Stephanie Ruest, an MPH student in the Brown University School of Public Health.
For example, those who spent four to six hours on digital media had a 49 percent lower chance of always or usually finishing their homework than those with less than two hours of media time per day. Those with six or more hours of device use had 63 percent lower odds of finishing their homework.
The paper’s authors, all pediatricians, also found that more time spent on digital devices didn’t just affect homework. It influenced the way kids feel about learning new things, completing tasks, and confronting mental challenges.
The team focused on five markers to measure childhood flourishing: completing homework assignments, caring about doing well in school, finishing tasks that are started, showing interest and curiosity in learning new things, and staying calm when faced with challenges.
“Not surprisingly,” Ruest said in an e-mail, “for each 2 hour increase in daily digital media exposure that is not schoolwork related, the odds decreased for always or usually demonstrating each of these 5 flourishing markers. An interesting finding in our study was that these trends all remained statistically significant regardless of the child’s age group, sex, or family poverty level.”
So what can parents do to keep their kids on track?
Dr. Erik von Hahn, a behavioral pediatrician at Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, said simply cutting kids off from their screens cold turkey isn’t enough. Parents should focus on introducing more social interaction while also cutting back on the video games.
Even digital media with an educational mission — which tend to be slower paced, are usually created with input from developmental psychologists, and include less violence — can’t replace the cognitive importance of face-to-face interaction.
Von Hahn recommended parents and guardians reduce screen time where possible, and supplement digital learning programs with personal discussions to nourish social development.
“It’s important to use media time that’s already there and make it quality media time,” he said. “The piece that’s missing is the screen is not a human. The screen is more predictable, it moves quickly with a rapidfire sequence of stimulation.
“When moving away [from screen time] you have to introduce other slower interactions like with a human. You have to say for every hour of screen time, I’m going to spend an hour talking to [my child] about what they did on the screen. That way it’s not exclusive screen time but also shared interaction time.”
As for adults, von Hahn said the best way to instill good practices in your children is to practice them yourself.
“There are a lot of factors to consider, and adults often have to be aware of their own media hygiene. We have to think about ourselves as well as our kids.”