Cognitive Abilities and Screen Time in Toddlers

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 Cognitive Abilities and Screen Time in Toddlers  

 Jim Windell

             My wife Jane, who is an early interventionist working in an Oakland County school district, frequently reports that parents of children under the age of three use television as a babysitter. Sometimes, Jane has said, the parents of infants and toddlers admit that their TV is on all day long.

           This is true despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that young children spend less than 60 minutes looking at screens each day. Furthermore, the AAP says that children should engage in at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day, consume five or more servings of fruits and vegetables and minimize or eliminate the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

           Perhaps many parents have not heard of these recommendations or out of desperation choose to overlook what the AAP advises. A report on MedlinePlus indicates that most American children spend about three hours a day watching TV, but when other types of screen time are totaled, a large segment of kids in this country are in front of a screen as many as five to seven hours a day.

           Previous research has linked adherence to AAP guidelines for physical activity levels, screen time and diet quality with executive function in school-aged or adolescent children.

           But what about toddlers? Does reduced screen actually contribute to advances in executive functioning?

           A new study has explored whether adherence to AAP’s guidelines for diet and physical activity had any relationship with toddlers’ ability to remember, plan, pay attention, shift between tasks and regulate their own thoughts and behavior, a suite of skills known as executive function.

           Naiman Khan, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign kinesiology and community health professor who led the study, states that “Executive function underlies your ability to engage in goal-directed behaviors. It includes abilities such as inhibitory control, which allows you to regulate your thoughts, emotions and behavior; working memory, by which you are able to hold information in mind long enough to accomplish a task; and cognitive flexibility, the adeptness with which you switch your attention between tasks or competing demands.”

           Khan, along with graduate student Arden McMath and food science human nutrition professor Sharon Donovan, wanted to test the hypothesis that healthy weight status and adherence to the AAP guidelines for diet and physical activity would extend to greater executive function in 24-month-old children. To test the hypotheses, and as reported recently in The Journal of Pediatrics, the trio of researchers studied the families of 356 toddlers. The study used parental surveys and data on the children collected at eight time points over a five-year period, including when the children are 24 months old.

           According to Arden McMath, “The surveys asked parents to report on several aspects of their child’s daily habits, including how much time they looked at screens, how physically active they were, whether they had at least five servings of fruits and vegetables and whether they refrained from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.”

           In addition, the parents also responded to a standard survey designed to measure executive function in toddlers. These questions asked them to evaluate their child’s ability to plan and organize their thoughts, regulate their emotional responses, inhibit impulses, remember information and shift attention between tasks.

           The study found that 24-month-old children who spent less than 60 minutes looking at screens each day and those who engaged in daily physical activity had better executive function than those who didn’t meet the guidelines. It also found that the more physical activity toddlers engaged in and the less time they were exposed to television and other screens, the better executive functioning they had.

           McMath points out that “We found that toddlers who engaged in less than 60 minutes of screen time per day had significantly greater ability to actively control their own cognition than those who spent more time staring at phones, tablets, televisions and computers.” In other words, they had greater inhibitory control, working memory and overall executive function. And, toddlers who got daily physical activity also did significantly better on tests of working memory than those who didn’t.

           While the study found no significant relationship between the children’s weight status and executive function, it suggested that associations between health behaviors and executive function may precede observed relationships between executive function and weight status in older children.

           This research helps support what the AAP has been saying for years. And it gives Jane more evidence to point out to parents who think that allowing children to watch TV and play with cell phones and iPads will not result in any permanent damage to their children that their children will think better and make more mature decisions with less screen time and more physical activity.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

McMath, A. L., Iwinski, S., Shen, S., Bost, K. F., Donovan, S. M., & Khan, N. A. (2022). Adherence to screen time and physical activity guidelines is associated with executive function in US toddlers participating in the STRONG Kids 2 birth cohort study. The Journal of Pediatrics.


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