Michelle Kerslake, B. A., Cognitive Coaching Specialist
Ben and Sam, fourth-grade classmates, are playing a video game at Ben’s house. Ben skillfully navigates through the starting prompts and hands Sam a controller. This is Sam’s first time playing a video game and he seems quite interested but a little intimidated about the whole thing. Clearly Ben is quite skilled at playing video games, but what else might be different about him because of his experience with video games? In general, what is the impact of having easy access to video and computer games, television, and the Internet on children’s development?

Interestingly, humans are born with the instinctive quality to orient themselves to novel stimuli like the sights and sounds of television and video and computer games (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Unfortunately, current research is indicating that the viewing of these forms of electronic media is harmful for infants and toddlers (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Christakis and his colleagues (e.g., Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe, & McCarty, 2004; Zimmerman & Christakis, 2007) have found, in studies of television use, a link between viewing television and attention problems. Specifically, children were more likely to exhibit attention difficulties at the age of seven with the increased amount of television that they watched before the age of three. Christakis and colleagues also found that the content of the television shows was a predictor of attention problems in later childhood. While the viewing of entertainment television (e.g., cartoons) shows before the age of three was a predictor of later attention problems, children were found to have even worse attention difficulties with the viewing of violent television content before the age of three. However, the viewing of educational television (e.g., Sesame Street) shows did not predict later attention problems in children. Zimmerman and Christakis (2007) hypothesized that the difference in the impact of content on the development of attention problems is due to the pacing of visual and auditory changes within the television programs. The researches explain that the frequent changes in entertainment programming and shorter scenes may actually over-stimulate the brain of developing babies and toddlers. Another major factor in babies and toddlers use of electronic media is that it takes time away from activities that are critical for their development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). For instance, if a toddler or the toddler’s parents are watching television, the toddler is less likely to interact with sensitive and responsive adults which is key for the development of their language skills, building memories, and learning about emotions (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Babies and toddlers also need to explore the “full body” of objects and spaces (e.g., smelling, opening and closing objects) to build temporal (i.e., time), spatial, and physical knowledge for their future development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Therefore, if a television is on even in the background, the baby or toddler will be distracted and subsequently reduce their length of exploration time with objects (Schmidt, Pempek, Kirkorian, Lund & Anderson, 2008).

The viewing of electronic media by older children and adolescents has less impact on their development compared to babies and toddlers (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). However, violent content present in electronic media still has negative short-term effects on children’s attention (Geist & Gibson, 2000). Likewise, entertainment programming has been linked with a decrease in academic achievement for children in pre-school and elementary school (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). On the other hand, educational programming has been linked to increased school readiness in children entering Kindergarten and increased achievement in adolescents (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010).

The reasoning behind the link between entertainment programming and decrease in academic achievement is that watching television has taken away from time that could have been spent on achievement-related activities (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). Comstock and Scharrer (2006) have proposed that children do not enjoy slower paced intellectually challenging entertainment (e.g., reading) because they have been socialized to prefer superficial, rapid action, formulaic sequences and plots from viewing television at an early age. Hence, if children do not enjoy intellectual activity then they are less likely to choose those activities over screened media.

Overall, the content of the electronic media and the amount of parent explaining, screening, and discussing of the content is the determining factor for the effects on children’s development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). So, how do parents limit viewing time of electronic media for their children and still provide them with the benefits of the knowledge and skills learned by accessing these forms of technology?  First of all, the American Pediatric Association has recommended against the use of any form of electronic media by children under the age of two. For preschoolers and older children, the total media time (including television) should be less than two hours per day (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001) and educational content would have the least negative impact. For all children and adolescents, parents need to control content exposure, set appropriate time limits (so the child does not miss out on other important developmental activities), monitor children’s communication on the internet, support children in mastering technological programs, and help children evaluate the commercial messages that they are inundated with (Broderick & Blewitt, 2010). “The best results from all technology use for children come accompanied by a skilled adult ‘coach’ who adds language, empathy, and flexibility” (Healy, 1998, p. 247).

Michelle is a Cognitive Coaching Specialist, providing coaching services to individuals with developmental disabilities, social, and/or behavioural challenges, and their families. She also provides cognitive training programs (including PACE) to those with Learning Disabilities and/or AD/HD. Michelle is currently completing her Masters of Education in School and Applied Child Psychology at the University of Calgary.

References

Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2010). Realms of cognition in middle childhood. In P. C.    Broderick & P. Blewitt (Eds.), The life span: Human development for helping professionals (3rd ed., pp. 176-212). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2001). Policy statement: Children, adolescents and television. Pediatrics, 107, 423-426.

Christakis, D. A., Zimmerman, F. J., DiGiuseppe, D. L., & McCarty, C. A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attention problems in children. Pediatrics, 113, 708-714.

Comstock, G., & Scharrer, E. (2006). Media and popular culture. In W. Damon & R. M.    Lerner (Series Eds.), K. A. Renninger, & I. E. Sigel (Vol. Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Child psychology in practice (6th ed., pp. 817-863). Hoboken,   NJ: Wiley.

Geist, E. A., & Gibson, M. (2000). The effect of network and public television programs    on four- and five year-olds’ ability to attend to educational tasks. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 27, 250-261.

Healy, J. M. (1998). Failure to connect: How computers affect our children’s minds for better or worse. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Schmidt, M. E., Pempek, T. A., Kirkorian, H. L., Lund, A. F., & Anderson, D. R. (2008). The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child Development, 79, 1137-1151.

Zimmerman, F. J., & Christakis, D. A. (2007). Associations between content types of early media exposure and subsequent attentional problems. Pediatrics, 120, 98 -992.