The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Q5: Will spending too much time in front of a screen affect my child’s education?

Question 3 asked about the impact of screen time on children’s social skills; this question takes a look at its possible impact on their education. In this context, it’s worth keeping figures from the Ofcom survey of parents in mind: about three quarters of parents are not concerned about how much time their children aged five to fifteen spend on screen-based activities whether it’s watching television, going online or playing games, although about a fifth of parents do have some concerns.

Research suggests that television in itself is not harmful and can be a positive experience if it’s shared with caregivers and used to prompt talk and role-play. [1] Interactions guided by others can also be beneficial for young children using digital media: finding opportunities to share activities, such as online shopping or where to go on holiday, can provide children with a sense of purpose and opportunities for focused talk as well as developing know-how about how to use devices. [2]

There are indications that some types of media exposure can be good for academic achievement in early childhood. An Australian study that investigated the vocabulary development of over 9,000 children aged from four to eight observed that growth in vocabulary was affected less by watching television and more by the amount of time parents spent sharing their child’s media activities. Their study led them to believe that, for preschoolers, the ‘protective factors’ (in other words, levels of parents’ education, shared viewing and a stimulating home environment) are more important than the amount of screen time when it comes to children’s language acquisition and that this continues to be the case through to age eight. Based on the results of their study they suggest that the American Academy of Pediatrics may have ‘over-interpreted’ the findings of the research it used when formulating its guidance about screen time limits for young children. [3] In an American study of over 8,000 young children the use of a computer in the home led to higher achievement in mathematics and reading, although it did not lead to academic gains for low-achieving readers. [4]

For older children and adolescents, there may be different issues. We have already noted that adolescents spend more time online than young children (Q3). Those who spend unusual amounts of time playing video games may disrupt sleeping and eating and this is likely to have an impact on other areas of life. [5] Some research has suggested that watching TV or using mobile phones in the bedroom can displace bedtimes and disrupt sleep patterns, leading to tiredness. [6] This may cause lack of attention in school and disturb the ways in which the brain consolidates learning and memory during sleep.

BookSome argue that children are spending their time interacting online at the expense of doing their homework and that video games provide an unwanted distraction. A study focusing on the activities of adolescent gamers and non-gamers found that those playing video games spent roughly a third less time reading and doing homework. [7] Nevertheless, it isn’t certain that these teenagers would be spending more time and effort on their learning if they were not gaming.

Although prolonged screen time may have a negative effect on a child’s ability to concentrate it is also important to take into account the content and the way in which children are using it. A group of researchers from America studied visual attention in gamers and non-gamers across three age groups from seven to seventeen. They found that across all ages playing action video games enhanced the ability to maintain concentration, which made them faster at making accurate responses. This ability to concentrate also allowed them to process information and distractions at a faster pace. [8] Research in Canada also showed that playing video games can improve young people’s concentration [9] and other studies have shown that gamers can develop skills to deal with attention-demanding tasks. [10]

There may be some detrimental effects from excessive gaming, but the lack of long-term studies has made this difficult to know for sure. While publicity tends to focus on the negative influences some reports suggest that there can be benefits, particularly if the power of games to be engaging and motivating could be harnessed for educational purposes and designed to support learning. [11] asked about the impact of screen time on children’s social skills; this question takes a look at its possible impact on their education. In this context, it’s worth keeping figures from the Ofcom survey of parents in mind: about three quarters of parents are not concerned about how much time their children aged five to fifteen spend on screen-based activities whether it’s watching television, going online or playing games, although about a fifth of parents do have some concerns.

 Illustration by Nick Mackie 

 < Back


[1] Takeuchi L. & Stevens R. (2011) The New Co-viewing: Designing for learning through joint media engagement. New York: The Joan Ganz Cooney Center.
[2] Plowman L. & Stephen C. (2007) Guided interaction in preschool settings. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23 (1) 14-21.
[3] Bittman, M., Rutherford, L., Brown, J. & Unsworth L. (2011) Digital natives? New and old media and children's outcomes. Australian Journal of Education 55 (2) 161-175.
[4] Judge, S., Puckett, K. & Bell, S. (2006) Closing the digital divide: Update from the early childhood longitudinal study. Journal of Educational Research 100(1): 52-60.
[5] Howard-Jones P (2014) Neuroscience and Education: A review of educational interventions and approaches informed by neuroscience. Education Endowment Foundation: London.
[6] Van den Bulck, J. (2007) Adolescent use of mobile phones for calling and for sending text messages after lights out: results from a prospective cohort study with a one-year follow-up. SLEEP 30 (9) 1220-1223.
[7] Cummings, H. & Vandewater, E. (2007) Relation of adolescent video game play to time spent in other activities. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 161 (7) 684-689.
[8] Dye, M., Green, C. & Bavelier, D. (2009) The development of attention skills in action video game players. Neuropsychologia 47 (8-9) 1780-1789.
[9] Karle, J., Watter, S. & Shedden, J. (2010) Task switching in video game players: Benefits of selective attention but not resistance to proactive interference. Acta Psychologica 134 (1) 70-78.
[10] Mishra, J. et al. (2011) Neural basis of superior performance of action videogame players in an attention-demanding task. Journal of Neuroscience 31 (3) 992-998.
[11] Howard-Jones P (2014) Neuroscience and Education: A review of educational interventions and approaches informed by neuroscience. Education Endowment Foundation: London.

< Back