Research shows that screen time can impact young children’s cognitive development. During their early years, children develop cognitive abilities such as perception, attention, learning, memory, language, and executive function. These abilities emerge depending on children’s experience in the world – a world which is more and more digital every day. Screens offer a constant and captivating stream of content to children’s developing minds. Early childhood is a sensitive period for cognitive development and the impact of screen use during this time can be significant.

Major Cognitive Impacts of Screen Time

Perception and Attention: As brain systems critical for attention and perception develop, they expect certain stimulation from the world. Screens are bright, captivating objects that are designed to capture your attention. As children spend more time on screens, their brains and minds come to expect an exaggerated world of visual information. This can make focusing in less stimulating environments, such as school, more difficult. It can also promote increased interest in screen time as a rewarding perceptual experience.

Learning and Memory: Screen time has been linked to problems with children’s learning and memory. Generally, the more kids use screens, the more the memory systems of the brain tailor to the unique demands of screen time, and less to the rest of the world. Research shows that learning from screens is less effective than real-world experiences and that children often struggle to transfer knowledge acquired from screens into real-life situations. Children learn best from screens when working together with others face-to-face through video chat or working closely with adults.

Language: Screen time has been linked with slower language learning in early childhood. Early childhood is a critical period for language learning and depends heavily on back-and-forth verbal interactions with others. Screen time not only takes time and attention away from personal interactions, it reduces the number and quality of essential language learning experiences. Learning language from screens is not as effective as engaging in real-life interactions and conversations with others.

Executive Function: Screen time during the early years can slow the development of executive function, the skills needed to plan, focus, redirect, and so on. Increased screen time and more exposure to age-inappropriate content are associated with reduced impulse control and self-regulation.

To minimize the cognitive harms associated with screen use in early childhood, experts recommend limiting the amount of time on screens and encouraging age-appropriate, high quality content.
This includes no more than 1 hour of high-quality, educational content for children under five, and no screen time for infants under 18 months. When using screens with young children, seek out age-appropriate content and prioritize educational content. Look for content that is non-violent and utilizes slower pacing and more realistic use of color and light. Engage with the content alongside young children and facilitate direct interaction. The more you can work screen time into a healthy environment that promotes learning in a variety of ways, the better.

Screen time is related to less stimulation of executive functions, less reliance on imagination and visualization, interruptions, and greater attention load…Brain regions used during screen exposure may compete with those used for literacy in reading.

Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, PhD Associate Professor, Educational Neuroimaging Group, Faculty of Education in Science and Technology, Faculty of Biomedical Engineering, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology