Heavy electronic media use in late childhood linked to lower academic performance

A new study of 8- to 11-year olds reveals an association between heavy television use and poorer reading performance, as well as between heavy computer use and poorer numeracy — the ability to work with numbers. Lisa Mundy of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on September 2, 2020.

Previous studies of children and adolescents have found links between use of electronic media — such as television, computers, and videogames — and obesity, poor sleep, and other physical health risks. Electronic media use is also associated with better access to information, tech skills, and social connection. However, comparatively less is known about links with academic performance.

To help clarify these links, Mundy and colleagues studied 1,239 8- to 9-year olds in Melbourne, Australia. They used a national achievement test data to measure the children’s academic performance at baseline and again after two years. They also asked the children’s parents to report on their kids’ use of electronic media.

The researchers found that watching two or more hours of television per day at the age of 8 or 9 was associated with lower reading performance compared to peers two years later; the difference was equivalent to losing four months of learning. Using a computer for more than one hour per day was linked to a similar degree of lost numeracy. The analysis showed no links between use of videogames and academic performance.

By accounting for baseline academic performance and potentially influencing factors such as mental health difficulties and body mass index (BMI) and controlling for prior media use, the researchers were able to pinpoint cumulative television and computer use, as well as short-term use, as associated with poorer academic performance.

These findings could help parents, teachers, and clinicians refine plans and recommendations for electronic media use in late childhood. Future research could build on these results by examining continued associations in later secondary school.

The authors add: “The debate about the effects of modern media on children’s learning has never been more important given the effects of today’s pandemic on children’s use of time. This is the first large, longitudinal study of electronic media use and learning in primary school children, and results showed heavier users of television and computers had significant declines in reading and numeracy two years later compared with light users.”

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