How Screen Time Affects Cognitive Development
Screen time includes televisions, computers, and screens outside of the home (such as movies, advertisements boards, tablets etc.). Research conducted at Brown University had identified that prolonged use of digital media decreases the probability that the child would comply with completing their school assignments.
As parents, we see two schools of thought. Some believe that children should not be allowed screen time. These parents tend to refrain from purchasing mobile phones for their child until they have reached secondary school. On the other hand, some believe early exposure to technology tools will improve their child’s cognitive development. Parents in this category may also find themselves guilty of succumbing to their children’s tantrums by putting them in front of a screen.
Cognitive Development in Children
According to psychologist Jean Piaget, children develop across four stages, which he named the 4 Stages of Cognitive Development. For the sake of simplicity, we will work closely with this model for cognitive development as articulated by Jean Piaget.
Sensorimotor Stage (Birth to 2 years old): In the early stages, infants take in information through movement and sensations. They slowly learn that they are separate beings from other people and objects. At this stage, the child goes through a period of drastic growth both biologically and cognitively. This is why infants often place things in their mouth and grab anything they can reach.
Strictly no screen time is recommended. There may be exceptions for video calls with relatives, but the frequency must be restricted. Children this age learn through their basic reflexes, senses, and motor movement, and having a screen on them (even for background noise) have been shown to affect their ability to learn and explore their environment. In addition, the light emitted from the phone or television may disrupt the production melatonin, a hormone that regulates their circadian (sleep nap) cycle.
Pre-operational Stage (2 to 7 years old): In the second stage, children think symbolically and learn to use words and pictures to represent objects. However, they tend to be egocentric and struggle to see things from the perspective of others. Language develops exponentially in this stage, and thus the best age for children to increase their vocabulary. Developmental psychologists recommend parents to talk to their children in full sentences at this stage to accelerate the development of proper syntax.
Introducing technology tools and screen time is possible at this stage but in limited doses. It is important not to deprive the child of screen time in the later stages due to the increasing importance of technology tools in most primary schools. Research also shows that children not exposed to technology tools at this age can grow up with poor digital literacy.
Screen time must be set as a privilege and not an essential component. Do not be afraid to remove the privilege as negative reinforcement, but under no circumstances should the allocated time be increased due to good behaviour.
Concrete Operational Stage (7 to 11 years old): By now, the egocentrism from the previous stage has reduced significantly, and children are better at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. While they are still very concrete and literal in their thinking, they have become much more adept at using logic. Most will still struggle with abstract concepts, such as the value of money and digital literacy.
At this stage, setting regulations for screen activities, especially leisure activities, are essential. Children start to have assignments and homework online, and that should not be categorised together with the total screen time. Start with a maximum of 1 hour of supervised screen time and gradually increase to 2 hours. This is the best time to filter out games and content that your children consume. There are multiple high-quality educational programmes for children such as educational applications on mobile phone, games that promote physical activity, and websites for children’s education (e.g. Khan’s academy, Crash Course Kids on YouTube). However, do pay close attention to the content and be conscious of advertisements on these platforms. Most junk food and toy adverts target children in their algorithms.
We need to acknowledge that social activities differ from our times. Now children socialise in games, social media, or through messaging services. Employing strict measures may hurt your child’s socialisation skills and can unknowingly hurt them in the future.
Formal Operational Stage (12 years and above): We can see an increase in logic, the ability to use deductive reasoning, and an understanding of abstract ideas at this stage. Children are able to see other perspectives and think of multiple solutions for a problem. Children in this age think categorically and can understand abstract concepts.
This can a difficult time for parents to enforce limited screen time as they will be exposed to technology tools in schools and from their friends. Allow some flexibility for socialisation, and eventually, allow them a full allowance of screen time. Educate them on the dangers of excessive screen time and also address potential dangers that exist on the internet. Encourage them to share their experience only with you, allowing you to quickly identify potential threats, cyberbullying, or malicious contents.
We recommend an “unplugged” day, either fortnightly or monthly, where the whole family get outdoors and keep away from technology. This helps the whole family reconnect socially with each other and maintain ties of kinship in the family, important for older children.
In the future, digital literacy will be an essential skill to have and there is a high probability that technology will be central to future employment. Moving forward, a child that has poor digital literacy may be behind in academic performance and lose out on future employment opportunities. In our Primary Schools, skills such as coding have already been implemented and as parents, it is important for us to know some basics to help our children in their cognitive development. Total avoidance of screen time is not the answer.