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Do Screens Help Kids Learn?

As we take further strides into the digital age, there is a timeless question to consider: what about the children?

While we live alongside immense technological leaps and bounds, we must consider the generation coming up within this frenzy of innovation. What many see as tools to improve the minds of the next generation, psychologists question the legitimacy of this hopeful perspective. While data continues to come out about the pros and cons of raising children with the aid of phones and tablets, there is no clear answer regarding the long-term implications of prolonged screen time with children. This is mainly because there hasn’t been enough time for such studies.

In recent years, psychologists and child development experts have been taking a closer look at young children’s relationship with handheld technologies, from tablets to phones and other screens. Researchers have been focusing on the content children consume on these devices and their environment while using these devices. The environment includes parenting habits and socioeconomic status. As we are hardly past the infancy of this screen-binging generation, many researchers are set to endure lasting studies to help answer complicated questions about young people and their relationship to screens.

Of particular interest, researchers have focused on the benefits of continual access to screens for kids as well as the potential detriments, such as physical and mental developmental delays. This article will focus primarily on the educational effects of screens for children five years old and younger. Multiple studies thus far suggest that very young children have greater difficulty learning directly from screens and require more engagement and direct guidance from someone to learn. As kids age, they can absorb information taught through a screen.

While having smartphones in each of our pockets is common, it is crucial to remember that this is all fairly new. Only 16 years ago, the first smartphone, the iPhone, was released. Three years later, Apple released the iPad. While handheld devices have existed for decades, how we interact with and rely on our smart devices is like nothing we have ever experienced. As technology progresses, these devices further implant themselves in our lives and our children’s lives.

The rapidly increasing reliance on smart devices makes it difficult to scientifically prove how much screen time is too much. Still, there are recommendations we should consider when it comes to children using devices.

In the modern era, it has become commonplace to give young children phones and tablets to play games and learn from for hours at a time. While many parents believe they give their children an enriching learning experience, studies indicate otherwise.

The American Academy for Pediatrics has recommended that children should not have any screen time until they are 18 to 24 months -except for video calls- while they suggest kids between two and five should only have as much as an hour of screen time per day. The World Health Organization has similar recommendations stating children under two years should not have any screen time and children between two and five years should have less than an hour per day. The government of Canada touts the same recommendations.

One longitudinal (long-term) study led by University of Calgary psychologist Sheri Madigan, PhD, examined 2,441 children. The study focused on instances where the child was given a device when they were distraught or angry. These children showed no detectible developmental issues. However, the study also focused on children who used screens excessively. What was found was children aged between 24 and 36 months using devices excessively performed worse on tests of behavioural, cognitive and social development at 36 months old.

Despite concerns from experts in the field of developmental cognition, the market has been flooded with digital educational resources intended for young children. Research indicates that digital learning for children is much less effective than in-person teaching. A study done in 2005 showed that children under two years old consistently failed to learn from language and simple imitation tasks shown on television.

Children of the same age were able to learn the same information when being taught face-to-face. Countless studies have been done to show that a person on a screen will not be able to teach a child as effectively as face-to-face teaching, even if it is the same person teaching them on screen.

Recent studies indicate children under the age of three tend to perceive what they view on screens as separate from real life. The child is cognitively ill-equipped to determine if what they see on screen is real. One such study showed a toddler a toy being hidden in a neighbouring room on a screen. When the child is brought into that room immediately after viewing, they cannot find the hidden toy.

When a child of the same age was shown where the toy was hidden on a screen disguised as a window, the child was then capable of identifying the place where the toy was hidden. The perception of seeing through a window gave the child the feeling they saw something real. In contrast, the information is not interpreted as reality when the same clip is shown on an obvious screen.

As for children between three and five years old, studies beginning in the 70s around the premiere of Sesame Street have consistently shown that children this age are capable of understanding slow-paced material shown on screen. They can interpret and apply what they see to the real world.

This leaves us with the same question: How much screen time is too much?

While there comes a point of cognitive development where children can draw directly from what they see on screens and actually learn from devices, there are still boundaries to the value of screen time for children.

It is important to bear in mind that the formative years of neurological development of a child establish the basis of their perception of reality and life in general. Whether an infant is being spoken to by an adult or by a character on a screen has provably different effects. While a 5-year-old can improve their knowledge of numbers and the alphabet through shows and videos, direct supportive interaction from a parent is shown to reflect a deeper learner. There is plenty to learn online, but there is no emotional investment in the teacher the way there is with a parent or other familiar person. This separation of emotional investment creates a ‘shallow’ learning experience, whereas learning while bonding with someone creates a deeper learning experience for the child.

It is crucial to note that all children in today’s day and age must understand modern technology. As a result, giving a child no time with screens may hinder their technological fluency later in life. While the digital age expands further into every domain of life, it is paramount that young people, the adults of tomorrow, understand the tech they are dealing with. Early introduction is important, but we must still consider when it is time to put the screens away.

– Matthew Harrison, U Multicultural

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