Screen time, executive functions and attention

One of our studies looked at whether screen time was associated with preschool children executive functions, and attention. Executive functions (EFs) relate to set of brain functions that enable people to achieve specific goals. These include working memory, set shifting (e.g. changing from one part of a task to another), or inhibitory control, which is when someone stop themselves from doing something. There are others as well, but these are seen as core EFs. Attention is seen as an aspect of executive functioning as well. Being able to pay attention and having good EFs has many benefits for children’s cognitive, social and behavioural development and skills, and supports their academic achievement. So it is very useful to find out if there are any links between EFs, attention, and screen time, to try to promote the best development and outcomes for young children.

We decided to look at the relationships between what is called “hot EFs” and “cool EFs” and screen time, and attention and screen time. EFs can be called hot or cool depending on their context. So if there is an emotional aspect to the task or goal, EFs can be hot. For instance, in the famous marshmallow task, when the child was told that if they did not eat the marshmallow while the experimenter was out of the room, they could get two marshmallows when the experimenter came back. The EF children had to show here was inhibitory control, and it was “hot” because (most!) children would really want the marshmallow and not like waiting. Inhibitory control in a “cool” context might be if a child is running in one direction but we tell them, “No, not that way, come back.” They have to inhibit the action they are already doing of running in one direction and alter their path. Here EFs are cool because there probably isn’t an emotional aspect in their goal of changing direction. (Unless they had been running towards the marshmallow, perhaps!)

Attention is one of those things that can mean different things, but I found that a lot of the research looking at the associations between screen time and attention in young children uses what is called the “Strengths and Difficulties” scale, which has a subscale for symptoms of inattention/hyperactivity, so this is what we used too. Note that higher scores don’t mean a child has ADHD, as this scale is not meant for diagnosis plus other things would be taken into account in a diagnosis.

We carried out some research into whether children’s screen time at 2 years and 4 years was linked to EFs and attention at 4.5 years. We hypothesised that the content of preschool children’s media exposure at age 2 years and the involvement of parents in their children’s media use (i.e. co-viewing) would be stronger predictors of inattention/hyperactivity, cool EFs and hot EFs at 4.5 years compared to amount of screen time. Interestingly, we didn’t find content of screen time at 2 years or parents’ coviewing were associated with EFs or attention, but we didn’t find that children’s screen time was either, unlike a lot of the past research.

What we did find was that having the TV going for long periods of time in the child’s environment was associated with poorer hot EFs and allowing children to eat meals in front of TV was associated with cool EFs. This means that if parents avoid having TV playing in their child’s background for long periods of time, and avoid letting them eat meals in front of TV, this could potentially help with the development of EFs, which is great news. Also, we did not find any association between screen time and attention, which is also great news, and could be quite reassuring to parents whose children have attentional problems such as ADHD.

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