Digital media use affects children in different ways •

Digital media has increasingly become a part of our lives over the past few decades and we are all aware that the use of screen-based technologies can consume a large chunk of time in the day. Concerns have arisen about the potential effects of digital media use on cognitive and behavioral aspects of functioning, particularly in children and adolescents.

These concerns have led to calls for empirical data on the use of digital media in children and its effects on traits such as impulsivity, attention control, sleep patterns, motivation, mental health and academic achievement. The emerging literature on these topics, however, paints a complex picture, with often conflicting results.

Media usage by children is usually measured in terms of total screen time, as if all forms of media were the same. They are not, and this approach may need to be refined to identify more specific effects.

Research increasingly suggests that the impact of digital media use on cognition, academic performance, and health depends on the type of media (eg, video games, social media, web browsing) , its content (eg, fantasy, documentary), context (eg, alone, in a group), and characteristics of the person consuming the media (eg, age and gender).

With this in mind, researchers from the University of Luxembourg and the University of Geneva in Switzerland set out to study three different types of media use by children – total time spent on media, media multitasking (using more than one digital platform at the same time) and video games – and how the consumption of these forms of media impacts the normal lives of children.

They collected data on children’s media use as well as (i) attentional and behavioral control abilities, (ii) psychological distress, psychosocial functioning and sleep, and (iii) academic achievement and motivation. While attentional control abilities were assessed using cognitive tests and questionnaires, mental health and sleep patterns were all assessed simply using questionnaires. Academic performance was based on self-reported grades, with motivational variables measured using the Courage and Growth Mindset Questionnaires.

The participants were pupils from a public primary school in the suburbs of Geneva, and were aged between eight and twelve years old. A total of 118 children (57 girls, 61 boys) participated in the study. The questionnaires and cognitive tests were completed in three separate sessions, in a school classroom.

The results showed that time spent using digital media increases with age. Eight-year-olds consumed an average of 4 hours and 28 minutes per day, while 12-year-olds spent an average of 8 hours and 14 minutes per day using digital media.

For every year a child ages, media usage increases by nearly a full hour per day. Total time spent using media was not different between boys and girls, although boys spent more time than girls playing video games specifically.

Time spent on multimedia multitasking (simultaneous use of multiple digital platforms, such as listening to music while surfing the net) also increased with age, but time spent playing video games did not. Also, as children get older, their speed of response increases, their impulsivity decreases (ie their tendency to raise false alarms), and their inattention decreases.

Since all of these variables of interest are correlated with age, the authors used partial correlations to assess the specific relationship between two variables while controlling for age and different types of media use.

They found that higher levels of media multitasking are linked to higher levels of distress, lower socio-emotional functioning, more behavioral and attention problems (as rated by teachers and parents) and reduced sleep quality. No significant partial correlation was observed between media multitasking and mind wandering, mood, grades, or any of the cognitive performance measures.

In contrast, more time spent on video games overall (considering all game genres together) was associated with faster response speed and significantly lower levels of distress. No significant partial correlations were found for video games and socio-emotional functioning, attention and behavior problems, sleep, mind wandering, state of mind, grades, impulsivity or inattention in cognitive tests. This indicates that playing video games may have a positive impact on specific measures of cognitive control and mental health.

The researchers conclude that while their study does not resolve the many inconsistencies in the area of ​​media use and its impact on cognitive functioning, mental health, and school-related variables, it does underscore the importance of not simply group all digital media usage under the banner of total usage time.

Multimedia multitasking and video gaming have different effects and should be studied in more detail. The type of media used (such as social media, internet browsing, or TV/video viewing), as well as the specific types of games played (e.g., action vs. non-action) can all be factors. important factors in determining the potential of digital. media to have a negative impact on daily functioning, especially during childhood.

The results of the study are published today in the journal PLOS One.

By Alison Bosman, Personal editor

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