For young children, television has become increasingly rivalled by household digital devices, such as smartphones and tablets (Rideout, 2013). Due to the more child-friendly experience that tablets provide in comparison to traditional computers, they are becoming a popular form of learning for pre-schoolers, in both home and childcare settings (Marsh et al., 2015). This is resulting in young children engaging in a range of screen activities (e.g., educational games, movies, video games), and yet, very little research has been conducted on the impact of these various activities on early cognitive development (Kabali et al., 2015; McClure, Chentsova-Dutton, Barr, Holochwost, and Parrott, 2015; Radesky, Schumacher and Zuckerman, 2015). To date, research has mostly reported on the impact of the amount of screen time on cognitive development, rather than the type of activities being engaged in during screen use. Therefore, the aim of this paper is to examine the effect of both screen time and screen activity on cognitive development, drawing on data from a nationally representative sample in the Growing Up in Ireland study (The Economic and Social Research Institute, 2015). The study also aims to assess an under researched area of early cognitive development in the screen time literature, reasoning ability.

Screen Time and Reasoning

Previous research investigating the impact of screen time on cognitive development in early childhood has focused on a number of aspects of development such as attention, reading comprehension, and language (e.g., Zimmerman, Christakis and Meltzoff, 2007; Barr, Lauricella, Zack and Calvert, 2010; Pempek, Demers, Hanson, Kirkorian and Anderson, 2011; Beatty and Egan, 2018). Findings from these studies have been mixed. For example, some studies have found that television exposure for over an hour per day causes a decrement in children’s vocabulary (e.g., Zimmerman and Christakis, 2005). In contrast, other studies have suggested that television viewing can enhance vocabulary development as long as the content is age-appropriate (Linebarger and Walker, 2005), a parent is present (Lavigne, Hanson and Anderson, 2015), and the child does not have prolonged screen exposure (Parkes, Sweeting, Wight and Henderson, 2013). These findings highlight the importance of considering different aspects of screen use, such as time and activity, which may play a role in cognitive development. However, relatively little is known about the impact of screen use on reasoning ability in early childhood.

Reasoning ability is an important aspect of early cognitive development (Piaget, 1936). It allows children to solve problems, learn from their environment and grasp the concept of cause and effect. An example of this in early childhood is figuring out “If I push a button on a pop-up toy, then I will see a figure pop-up” (Lerner and Ciervo, 2003). In a study with older children (aged fourteen), internet and mobile phone use was negatively associated with reasoning ability and overall cognitive performance (Adelantado-Renau, Diez-Fernandez, Beltran-Valls, Soriano-Maldonado and Moliner-Urdiales, 2018). Interestingly, this study also reported no association between TV and video games and reasoning ability. In contrast, O’Connell (2018) found positive correlations between screen use and non-verbal reasoning in thirteen-year-olds. The authors of both studies did, however, note that the effect sizes observed in these studies were small.

Similar to the findings relating to the impact of screen time and other aspects of cognitive development, the findings on reasoning ability and older children are also mixed and highlight the difficulties with drawing conclusions from screen time research. To date, there has been little research published examining screen use and reasoning in early childhood, particularly using a large, nationally representative, child cohort. Therefore, the aim of this study is to explore the effect that daily screen time and various screen activities have on young children’s reasoning ability at age five years, drawing on data from the Growing Up in Ireland (GUI) study.

Methodology and Data

The data for this study were drawn from 9,001 five-year-olds and their families in the GUI sample (Wave 3), accessed through the Irish Social Science Data Archive (ISSDA)[1]. Face-to-face assessments and interviews with the study children and their parents were conducted by a trained interviewer during visits to the household. The children’s non-verbal reasoning ability was assessed using the ‘Picture Similarities’ task, adopted from the British Abilities Scale (BASII; Elliott, Smith and McCullough, 1997).

The Picture Similarities task measures non-verbal reasoning ability and problem-solving skills, by showing a row of four pictures and asking the child to then identify and select a further congruent picture that best matches the set. It allows the child to solve non-verbal problems by identifying key features in pictures and attaching meaning to pictures. Children gain one point for each correct response, and ability scores (converted from raw scores) range between 10 and 119 - where higher scores are associated with higher non-verbal reasoning ability.

Parents were asked to provide information on their children’s daily activities including the screen activity that they mostly engaged in (educational games, video games, TV/video watching, or a mix of all activities) and their average amount of daily screen time (between one and two hours, between two and three hours, or more than three hours). The relevant data was then assessed to explore the impact screen use has on children’s reasoning ability.

Results

The majority of five-year-olds engaged in between one and two hours of daily screen time, and a mix of all activities (see Table 1), as also reported by Beatty and Egan (2018) and Murray, McNamara, Williams and Smyth (2019). Non-verbal reasoning scores in the five-year-olds ranged between a minimum score of 10 and a maximum score of 119 (Mean score = 86.59, Standard Deviation = 11.75).

Screen Time

Mean Score

Standard Deviation

Confidence Interval (95%)

% of Children

Number of Children

 

 

 

Lower

Upper

 

 

No screen time

87.91

12.39

86.28

89.54

2.67

238

Between one and two hours

87.08

11.47

86.75

87.40

56.57

5042

Between two and three hours

86.45

11.79

86.00

86.90

27.81

2478

More than three hours

84.91

12.61

84.23

85.59

12.95

1154

Screen Activity

 

 

 

 

 

Educational games

83.97

12.90

82.02

85.99

1.68

146

Video games

85.70

12.09

84.31

87.09

2.85

247

TV/Video watching

85.90

11.50

85.50

86.30

37.32

3237

Mix of All

87.15

11.82

86.82

87.48

58.15

5044

Table 1.    Mean Non-Verbal Reasoning Scores in each Screen Time and Activity Category

There was a significant association between the amount of screen time per day and the type of activity children mainly engaged in, χ2 (6, N = 8674) = 161.37, p < .001, Cramer’s V = .096. Approximately two thirds of children that mainly play educational games (66.4%) or watch TV/videos (65.7%) have between one and two hours of screen time per day (see Table 2 below). In contrast, there are a smaller percentage of children engaged in between one and two hours of screen time per day who mainly engage in video games (60.3%), or a mix of activities (52.9%). Of those that engage in a mix of screen activities, one in six children do so for more than 3 hours per day (16.3%). This rate is higher than for children engaging in mainly a single type of screen activity (e.g., playing educational games: 10% or 1 in 10 children do this for over 3 hours per day; see Table 2).

Between one and two hours

Between two and three hours

Three or more hours

Total

Educational Games

66.4% (97)

23.3% (34)

10.3% (15)

100% (146)

Video Games

60.3% (149)

29.2% (72)

10.5% (26)

100% (247)

TV/Video Watching

65.7% (2126)

25.4% (821)

8.9% (290)

100% (3237)

Mix of Activities

52.9% (2670)

30.8% (1551)

16.3% (823)

100% (5044)

Table 2.     Percentage (and Number) of Children Engaged in each Screen Activity for the Different Time Categories

Statistical analyses were conducted to assess if screen time and screen activity had a significant impact on non-verbal reasoning ability (See Figure 1). The 3x4 between-subjects ANOVA analysis indicated that the two aspects of screen use (activity and time) did not interact to have an effect on non-verbal reasoning scores, F(6,8662) = 1.30, p = .253, ηp2  = .001. However, there were significant main effects of both screen activity, F(3,8662) = 21.84, p < .001, ηp2 = .005, and of screen time, F(2,8662) = 13.70, p < .001, ηp2 = .005, on the reasoning scores, although the effect sizes were small.

Examining the effect of screen time indicated that children who engaged in more than three hours of screen time a day scored significantly lower in the reasoning task than those in any other time category, all p’s < .001 (see Table 1 and Figure 2). There was no significant difference in non-verbal reasoning scores between those in the one to two hours and the two to three hours categories, p = .086.

Examining the effect of screen activity showed that children who mostly engaged in a mix of all activities have significantly higher reasoning ability scores than those who mostly engaged in educational games, p = .007, or TV/video watching, p < .001, but not video games, p = .282 (see Table 1 and Figure 3).

Discussion

The findings from this study indicate that both screen time and screen activities have an effect on non-verbal reasoning scores in five-year-old children. Children who engaged in a mix of screen activities had significantly higher scores than those who engaged mainly in educational games or TV/video watching. However, children who engaged in over three hours of screen time per day, regardless of the type of screen activity, had significantly lower non-verbal reasoning scores than those who had less than three hours per day of screen time. However, it is worth noting that the majority of 5-year-olds engaged in under two hours of daily screen time (55%), with the most popular screen activity being a mix of all activities (56%). These findings indicate that many Irish children already engage in screen use associated with the highest reasoning ability scores in this study.

While the results suggest that screen use has an impact on non-verbal reasoning scores, the small effect sizes reported in the ANOVA results suggest that screen use has a relatively minor role to play in this aspect of cognitive development. These small effect sizes are consistent with previous research with older children (e.g. Adelantado-Renau, et al., 2018; O’Connell, 2018). Due to the small numbers in some of the screen use groups (e.g. video games and educational games) there was high variability in reasoning scores for these groups (e.g., see confidence intervals for scores as indicated in Figure 3). Caution is therefore advised in considering the impact of games on reasoning scores, as the number of children who played games in this study may not be representative of all children. More research is warranted before drawing conclusions regarding the role of on-screen games in the development of non-verbal reasoning ability.

The findings in this study highlight the importance of considering the impact of both the amount of screen time and the type of activity when investigating the impact of screens on cognitive development. Using a nationally representative sample, this is the first study to investigate this topic. Future research should continue to explore screen use in large child cohort studies to provide a nuanced understanding of the impact, or lack thereof, that screens have on well-being and development in early childhood. These findings may also have implications for both parents and policymakers when considering the amount and type of appropriate screen use to support healthy development in young children.

[1] Growing up in Ireland Infant Cohort Wave 3 - 5 year (2013) dataset can be accessed through the Irish Social Science Data Archive. URL http://www.ucd.ie/issda/data/growingupinirelandgui/