New research around screen time and children’s behaviour

Published on Wednesday, 11 August 2021
Last updated on Monday, 09 August 2021

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Screen time is a big part of modern life, and although educational shows and engaging content can enrich young minds, moderation is key in childhood.

The government’s Active Play Guidelines for Under-Fives discourage screen time for under twos, and recommend less than one hour a day for preschoolers, and there’s plenty of evidence that less is best in the early years.

Now, new research using Growing Up in New Zealand data suggests that screen time may affect under fives’ development of executive function skills.

Here, we see why executive function is so important, and how you can reduce screen time for the good of your child’s health and development.

What is executive function?

Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child explains that, ‘Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.’ 

The brain needs these skills to:

  • Filter distractions
  • Prioritise tasks
  • Set and achieve goals
  • Control impulses, and
  • Behave in positive ways.

Executive function is vital for learning and development, because it covers a range of cognitive processes including working memory, flexible thinking and inhibitory control. And although children aren’t born with executive function skills, Harvard explains that they are born with the potential to develop them.

Parents, whānau, educators and other supportive adults can all help a child to develop and practice their executive function skills by:

  • Establishing routines
  • Modelling social behaviour
  • Creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships, and
  • Encouraging children to engage in creative play and social connections, learn to cope with stress, get plenty of exercise, and gain independence as they grow.

All in all, Growing up in New Zealand reports that executive functions:

  • Help preschoolers to develop social skills
  • Foster academic competence at school age, and
  • Support success as adults.

What does the New Zealand research tell us about screen time and executive function?

Researchers from the University of Auckland and University of Otago wanted to see how screen media use at the age of two, and then four, might be related to the development of children’s executive functioning, and symptoms of inattention/hyperactivity at the age of four-and-a-half.

Researcher, Maria Corkin explains that, ‘The preschool years are a period of increased neuroplasticity in which executive functions develop rapidly. It is important to understand more about [how] children’s screen use might be related to executive functions, so that we can learn more about the best way to manage preschool children’s screen use to promote the development of these essential cognitive skills.’

The research team used Growing Up in New Zealand data for 3,787 mums, dads and children and looked at:

  • Patterns of screen time, i.e. whether children watched more than two hours of screen per day at ages two and four
  • Content of screen media, i.e. whether it was adult-directed or child-directed
  • Total exposure of the child to weekday TV, i.e. whether it was on in the background or foreground
  • Whether meals were allowed in front of the TV
  • Whether rules were in place to restrict TV, and
  • The frequency of co-viewing, i.e how often parents watched a screen with child.

As a result, the researchers found that two features of a home environment were connected with poorer executive functions at the age of four-and-a-half:

  1. Eating meals in front of the TV at the age of four, and
  2. A higher weekday TV exposure at the age of two. A heavy TV environment at this age involved the television being on in the same room as the child for long stretches of time, whether the two-year-old was watching the screen or not.

Mrs Corkin explains that, ‘Watching TV often may mean that children are not engaged in other activities. For instance, if families frequently eat in front of the TV, then the opportunity for parent-child conversations can be limited. Conversations at the dinner table can aid children’s early language development and the subsequent development of executive functions skills.’

When it comes to the positive effects of screen time, Ms Corkin says the study didn’t find, ‘as such,’ that screen time was linked to the development of executive functions or attention.

She says, ‘Minimising TV in a child’s environment, and maximising parental involvement in a child’s screen use through co-viewing may help to keep screen time low and potentially help with the development of executive functions during the preschool years.’

How can parents reduce screen time in the years before school?

A second study by Mrs Corkin and her fellow researchers looked at the prevalence of screen time in New Zealand and explored the family behaviours that are connected with higher levels of screen time at the age of two.

They found that children who always watched screens with their parents had lower overall levels of screen time, and the researchers encourage these parenting practices to reduce your young child’s screen time:

  • Co-viewing or co-using screens with your child as often as possible
  • Setting time restrictions for screen viewing (aka screen time rules)
  • Minimising the amount of time the TV is left on in the same room as your child (so the space isn’t a ‘heavy TV environment’), and
  • Not letting your child watch screen content that’s meant for adults.

The Active Play Guidelines for Under-Fives say it also helps to:

  • Model good screen habits as a parent by reducing screen use
  • Replace TV time with reading time, storytime or doing puzzles together
  • Remove the TV completely, or limit having it on until your young child has gone to bed
  • Make sure there are no screens in any bedrooms
  • Store DVDs, consoles, tablets and electronic games out of sight, and
  • Encourage more time playing outside (switching screen time for energetic play time).

The government says there’s evidence that, ‘Prolonged screen use (even educational TV) can be detrimental to a child’s physical health, emotional health and communication skills,’ and that it can also, ‘Affect the quality and quantity of their sleep.’

Research also shows that, ‘Longer time spent watching TV during a child’s younger years is associated with decreased maths and physical abilities, lower classroom attentiveness and increased emotional problems later in childhood.’

This latest research into preschoolers’ executive function reinforces the importance of screen limits in the early years, and it’s a good idea to take TV meals off the menu and go light on screen time, for the good of your child’s learning and development.

Key reference

Growing Up in New Zealand

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