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The Screen Time-Brain Development Connection

By Chrissy Khachane, Head of Lower School


A few weeks ago the New York Times highlighted a study recently published in the JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association) Pediatrics that looked at the association between the amount of screen use in young children (ages 3-5) and cognitive development. In this cross-section study, snapshots of developing brains were acquired through special brain scans and read against data that included parent feedback on their child’s screen use. Researchers also looked at measures of language and early literacy with cognitive testing. "The results of the cognitive tests correlated well with the children’s screen exposure; the children with higher screen exposure had poorer expressive language and did worse on tests of language processing speed, like rapidly naming objects."

One of the more profound takeaway messages from this recent study is less about the notion of screens being intrinsically bad for children and more about the idea of how the developing brain is shaped by experiences and “how parents hold the keys to those experiences.” There is no doubt more research, specifically longitudinal studies, is necessary to understand how our changing world is affecting our children’s brains. At the same time, the message to parents remains that in the early years, human (parent) contact is critical to developing brains. Young children need opportunities to interact, talk, play, ask questions and read. 

Within the curriculum for our youngest students (those in grades K–2) we place a priority on experiential learning, interactive play, and social opportunities. At the same time we don’t see technology as the enemy. We remain critical of the ways we use this learning tool in our program and rely on the research to inform the decisions we make. Some of our criteria to ensure quality screen time (which we encourage families to consider when selecting content at home) includes:

  • Seeking out interactive options that engage your child, rather than those that just require pushing and swiping or staring at the screen.
  • Utilizing adaptive programs and apps that adjusts the difficulty based on student performance and provide data from this information that can inform teacher instruction (e.g. which skills teachers need to reinforce in small group instruction).

The home/school partnership is essential to the work we do across disciplines. In an age where screen use is more prominent than ever, researchers are trying to keep up with recommendations in order to help parents feel informed and empowered as they make decisions about the role screens play in their children’s lives. Given available research, we share the following recommendations for parents to consider at home:

  • Use digital devices with your child. Whether your child is using an app that promotes skill development or they are using a tool as an extension from the classroom (such as Linguascope), engage in conversation about what tasks they are completing on the device.
  • Seek out apps and online learning tools that are adaptive in nature. These types of programs analyze a student's performance in real time and modify teaching methods based on that data. Some examples of these types of learning tools are Lexia, Splash Math, DreamBox, and HOMER Reading: Learn to Read.

Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.