Toddlers and screen time. Is it that bad?

Toddlers and television might not be such a great mix, is the warning from a team of researchers at Ohio State University. They conducted a study into the relation between television exposure during preschool years and the development of executive function. The results were quite conclusive – television can often be related in a negative way to the cognitive functions of your child.

Executive function, also called EF, is a concept used to refer to a set of cognitive processes that take place in the frontal lobe of your child’s brain that deal with skills such as self-control, working memory and attention flexibility. Through their study, the researchers tried to link the development of EF to a few key factors related to television exposure; the total amount of time children spent in front of the television, the amount of time they were exposed to background television (which means that the TV was running although they were doing something else), the age at which they started watching television and the type of programs that they most commonly watched. The study involved more than 100 pre-schoolers, who underwent five EF measurement tests and whose parents were asked about the television exposure of their child.

To begin with, it was discovered that the executive function of children who spent more time in front of the television was poorer than that of children who spent less. This can be related to the fact that, most commonly, television implies programs that provide fast-paced entertainment, with a quick “reward” and little time for processing. These programs are designed to captivate the attention of your child and to stimulate his or her visual and auditory senses, which means that images will change frequently and your child will have very little time to actually think about what is happening or to draw meaningful conclusions. This is why it is to be expected that children exposed to such forms of entertainment will find it more difficult to exert control over their impulses or to allocate their attention properly.

Moreover, the study revealed that children who started watching television at an earlier age had a weaker EF than children who became viewers at an older age. This result was associated with the fact that infancy and, in general, the first years of a child’s life represent a time when brain development is especially rapid and therefore very easily impaired. As other studies have shown in the past, exposure to television during infancy often led to issues such as ADHD.

Finally, when it came to the type of content pre-schoolers were exposed to, researchers were able to single out a positive effect of watching the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), in comparison to other programs. The study explained that this might be due to the fact that PBS provided high-quality storytelling for children and was not interrupted by disruptive commercials. Still, most of the other programs included in the survey were correlated to a lower executive function.

The study at Ohio State University sparked new interest in the field of exposing children to television. A more recent research, for instance, shows that children who were more fussy and demanding as babies tend to spend more time (approximately 9 minutes more every day) in front of the TV during preschool years and even later in life. Whether or not the two things could be related is uncertain at this time, but the study did bring up some important questions. Naturally, some parents will try to use television as a way to quiet down and cope with their children. But is this a healthy practice? And isn’t time spent in front of the screen a waste of time that could be spent with much more educational and enriching activities?

If you are interested in the study, you can find it here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259845495_The_Relation_Between_Television_Exposure_and_Executive_Function_Among_Preschoolers

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