Can screentime be beneficial for children?

Innovation News Network spoke to Elena Hoicka, a senior lecturer in psychology in education at the University of Bristol, on the effects of screentime and apps on the creative development of children in the early years.

Children love to engage and play with technology and this is in line with our fast-growing tech industry. As we move towards a technologically based world, the next generation of children are growing up in the presence of televisions, phones, and tablets – they are everywhere. It is almost impossible to realise a world without these inventions now; so can we expect children not to engage in technology when we are submerged in it ourselves?

Varying views on whether children should be allowed access to smart phones, tablets and computers are surfacing in the news: many psychologists believe that allowing children to spend time on screens is bad for their health and their mental wellbeing, whereas many other experts are now finding the opposite. The effects of technology on the health and safety of children is not widely researched, as technology and human behaviour towards screens is moving at a faster rate than we can study.

Of course, it is clear that more work is needed to better understand the effects of different types of screen use. Innovation News Network spoke to Elena Hoicka, a senior lecturer in psychology in education at the University of Bristol on the effects of screen time and apps on creative development in the early years. Hoicka points out the research which has already been conducted, which analyses whether a smart device can be beneficial to how a child learns and plays.

What are the main arguments against allowing young children to learn and play through these devices?

Research has shown that the problems we see with regard to screen time is related to duration and perhaps even time of day; however, a lot of this research is based around television rather than smart devices. Generally, the more screen time a child is exposed to, the higher levels of obesity; this is all correlational, so you do not know if children that are actively looking at screens are facing outside issues or whether screens are actually displacing physical activity. Another one of the major concerns is sleep; perhaps when a child is supposed to be sleeping, they are using smart devices instead, or watching television. Sleep is extremely important in child development for consolidating information and learning, however research has shown that the blue light which is emitted from most screens can be detrimental to the ability to sleep.

The research does tend to be correlational (rather than causal) and therefore it is still difficult to know exactly what is coming from that, but what I would say is that parents just need to be more aware of how long their children are looking at screens and perhaps the time of day they are playing on devices. In my opinion, this does not mean no access to screens.

What evidence is there showing that smart devices can be beneficial to the early creative development of a child?

This approach is completely different to the previous research mentioned above; this question ties into research on content and specific apps rather than time spent. The studies looking at duration do not look in great detail at how that child is spending that time – whether they are watching YouTube or playing on a mathematical game. If the content is supporting a certain skill then yes, it can often be beneficial to young children and it can enable them to learn from what they are witnessing and to transfer that learning into the real world. From the analysis and results of research studies, it is starting to become clear that children are beginning to apply what they are learning from an app or a game – children do not just use an app and then have no idea how to transfer the skills they are leaning. This is in the same way that you take information from a book and apply it later on in the real world – a book does not depict an actual thing, it is a representation.

In terms of research, some qualitative small scale studies have been conducted which focused specifically on how children are transferring skills. In one study published last year by Jackie Marsh, children were monitored in their homes while playing on apps; they were observed and documented in relation to the different types of play and creativity which they demonstrated when playing on the aforementioned screens. The study showed that children demonstrate a number of different types of play such as exploring and pretending, the same as they do when playing with a traditional toy. This study was of a naturalistic nature, meaning that the subjects were not given a specific app, they were observed using whatever apps were already on their tablets. It seems that using a screen medium does not mean that children are going to play differently – they can practise all of the same skills while using an app that they might in traditional play dynamics. This is particularly interesting as many people believe that you cannot play or be creative with an app, but the research is demonstrating that you certainly can – screens are a different platform but can allow distribution of the same skills.

There has been another study looking at young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD): children diagnosed with ASD often struggle to engage with play, particularly pretend play. The study saw children with ASD play an encouraging and heightened story app which takes them through imaginary scenarios; the results showed that from playing the game, the children went back into the real world with more confidence and showing more imaginary play with dialogue. The children were acting out what they had been playing and doing activities atypical to children with ASD. This could be due to a variety of reasons, perhaps because there is more support from an app or less distractions from people.

Additionally, still discussing research, there has been one other study which looks at the transfer of problem solving abilities: this study used the Tower of Hanoi game to distinguish how children between the ages of four and six transfer skills. The idea behind the Tower of Hanoi is to relay the rings from one stick to another in the same order, without ever putting a bigger one on top of a smaller one – it is a creative problem solving task. Children who participated in the study solved the game on a screen and were then asked to do it physically. The results showed that after performing the task on the screen, they could then easily transfer those skills to the real life equation and did not have to learn how to perform the task again. This again provides evidence that the time spent on the screens and solving the creative problems was not wasted, the skills were actively transferred to the real world.

In principle, if the content of the app is beneficial and children find it engaging, it does not have to be negative. Screens can present a fun medium for young children to learn, and they incite a way to practise being creative. The nice thing about an app in comparison to television and books is that they are contingent, an app can be interactive and can provide feedback, this is something you are not going to be able to benefit from with other mediums.

Without the use of specially developed apps, how can we encourage more divergent thinking in children under the age of five?

Simone Bijvoet-van den Berg and I developed the ‘unusual box test’ which is the first test to measure divergent thinking in children under the age of three. Beforehand, because divergent thinking could not be measured in anybody below that age bracket, we didn’t know it existed; now that we have this new test, we are finally able to gain more of an insight into the mindset of young children and evaluate what effects their capabilities in divergent thinking.

With regard to actually encouraging divergent thinking, parenting style has been seen to be an important factor. The basis of this is that more permissive parents tend to allow more divergent thinking in their children; when children are left to their own devices, they have to come up with ideas independently. Of course, there are situations where structure is good, but with regards to playing and being creative, children who are having to decide for themselves and creatively create their own fun without being told what or how to do it, are more likely to develop a divergent mindset.

Alternatively, we have recently found that you can model divergent thinking for children; and initiating ideas within the mind of a child can actually lead them to come up with more ideas themselves. For example, if we first show a child a multitude of things to do with a special box, such as tapping an object, or moving its strings, the child will copy some of those actions. But what we have now recently discovered is that overwhelmingly a child will also come up with a vast array of novel ideas themselves, and it is almost as though you are giving the child permission to play and permission to be creative.

What are your professional thoughts on the argument that we should accept that children are going to want to use the apps and smart devices, that perhaps we should work on creating safer games/apps rather than discouraging screen time altogether?

I agree that yes, we probably do want to limit time spent on screens and ensure that children are not exposed to blue light near bedtimes, however, research is now actively showing that if the content is beneficial and children are learning from it, screens and online devices can actually provide a multitude of positive externalities. I believe that the approach with regard to screen time and children should be: limit the duration and time of day, but also help to encourage using the correct content. Research into this topic is still in its infancy and therefore it is difficult to really suggest how much time your child should spend on an app or whether it will be detrimental to their health. What I do think is that the decision of a parent to implement restrictions on screen time should be done on a case by case basis; if your child is not having sleeping problems, they are still engaging in other ‘real world’ activities and they are learning something from the information they are processing on said screens, then I have no issue in this. This is more about ensuring that parents are guiding their children to make the right choices on devices. Because of the interactive aspect and the ability to provide independent feedback, an app can be a great learning tool.

Can we expect to see a lot more research on this topic in the near future?

I am currently running a British Academy-funded research project looking at whether apps encourage or discourage play in one- to three-year-olds. One set of studies looks at whether toddlers who play with apps then repeat the jokes or pretending they learned in the app in the real world, or not. If they do, then apps could be used to teach children to learn to play, which is important for early learning, as well as making friends. My PhD student Stephanie Powell, funded by the ESRC, is similarly looking at whether apps encouraging exploration or creative problem solving can encourage toddlers to be more creative in the real world or not. We are also running an online survey for parents of toddlers anywhere in the world, to find out if the amount of time spent using apps, and the types of app used, affect children’s creativity and play long term. Parents can complete the 20- to 30-minute survey twice across 6 months at After completing the survey a second time, parents will receive an Amazon voucher for £5 (or their local currency, provided they have Amazon).

Elena Hoicka

Senior Lecturer in Psychology in Education

University of Bristol

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