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

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An Australian 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.

Lisa Mundy of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues have presented these findings.

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.”

Introduction: The effects of electronic media use on health has received much attention but less is known about links with academic performance. This study prospectively examines the effect of media use on academic performance in late childhood.
Materials and methods: 1239 8- to 9-year-olds and their parents were recruited to take part in a prospective, longitudinal study. Academic performance was measured on a national achievement test at baseline and 10–11 years of age. Parents reported on their child’s duration of electronic media use.
Results: After control for baseline reading, watching more than two hours of television per day at 8–9 years of age predicted a 12-point lower performance in reading at 10–11 years, equivalent to the loss of a third of a year in learning. Using a computer for more than one hour a day predicted a similar 12-point lower numeracy performance. Regarding cross-sectional associations (presumed to capture short-term effects) of media use on numeracy, after controlling for prior media exposure, watching more than two hours of television per day at 10–11 years was concurrently associated with a 12-point lower numeracy score and using a computer for more than one hour per day with a 13-point lower numeracy performance. There was little evidence for concurrent effects on reading. There was no evidence of short- or long-term associations between videogame use and academic performance.
Discussion: Cumulative television use is associated with poor reading and cumulative computer use with poorer numeracy. Beyond any links between heavy media use and health risks such as obesity, physical activity and mental health, these findings raise a possibility of additional risks of both television and computer use for learning in mid-childhood. These findings carry implications for parents, teachers and clinicians to consider the type and timing of media exposure in developing media plans for children.

Lisa K Mundy, Louise Canterford, Monsurul Hoq, Timothy Olds, Margarita Moreno-Betancur, Susan Sawyer, Silja Kosola, George C Patton


PLOS material


PLOS One abstract

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