Screen Time and Young Children

Facing Screen Time Truths: Understanding what it means to teach young children through a screen.  

Screen Time and Young Children

To all early childhood educators, raise your hand if you came out of teachers’ college, believing that screen time is bad for young children. Yep, that was me too.  I currently work as a Technology and Design Coach, so my ideas around this topic have evolved. Regardless of how you feel about technology in the early childhood classroom, the current global pandemic has forced many early childhood educators into the world of digital instruction. So, it’s time to face our current reality and think about what screen time means for the early learner. What you normally do in your classroom doesn’t always translate well into a digital lesson, especially if we have to be staring at a screen for extended amounts of time. In this post, I hope to look at considerations surrounding cognitive load and how we process information received from screens.

Television and Video

Although mobile screens are more recent, television has been around for a long time. Therefore, the research surrounding young children’s television content is quite extensive. Here’s what we know:

  • Fully comprehending a video sequence utilizes 17 distinct regions of the cerebral cortex in the ADULT brain.

  • Our youngest children (2 and under) place more of their attention on salient visual features such as movement or rapid pacing.

  • As children grow older, they are more able to pay more attention to content in a video.

(Kirkorian & Anderson, 2008)

If we choose to utilize video content in our online instruction with young children, it is important to realize that kids’ brains aren’t necessarily equipped to extract “meaning” from it. While we see that they are paying attention, depending on the child’s age and brain development, their attention could just as easily be focused on a bright flash or quick movement on the screen, rather than analyzing that particular scene for comprehension.

We never hand a child a book and simply ask them to read it. We give them various strategies for unlocking that text. If you are going to give your students a video, don’t forget to do the same thing. Here are some things to consider when using video with students:

  • Ask students to watch more than once

  • Name specifically what the students should look for each time they watch

  • Teach students to pause the video to jot or draw/sketch what they notice

  • Ask parents or older siblings to be turn-and-talk partners for students, so they have someone to help pause the video, and process their thoughts with

Cognitive Load and Designing your Digital Instruction

Who knew that teachers in the 21st century would also have to be digital designers?! There’s a reason why digital design is a full field of work all on its own; there is a LOT that goes into understanding how to design for the people who will be using a digital space. For this reason, I think it’s essential that we have a basic understanding of how elements on a screen can focus our attention or distract us.

What is cognitive load? Put simply, it’s how much information your brain can hold and process in working memory. Cognitive load theory is based on the idea that we have limited resources in our working memory and can only hold and process so much information at any one point in time (Baddley, 1976 as cited in Hollender, Hoffmann, Deneke, & Schmitz, 2010). Mayer’s (2001) work on how our mind processes screen-based media has often helped me remain mindful when I design digital content for my young students. Mayer (2001) discusses three assumptions:

THE DUAL-CHANNEL ASSUMPTION: WE RECEIVE INFORMATION THROUGH THE AUDITORY AND VISUAL CHANNELS. (MAYER, 2001)

An example that I  use to illustrate this is this short video of a green bouncing ball. The audio coupled with the visual illustration helps integrate the knowledge of what a “green bouncing ball” is.

THE LIMITED CAPACITY ASSUMPTION: WE CAN ONLY HOLD SO MUCH INFORMATION IN OUR WORKING MEMORY, AND EVERYONE’S LIMITS ARE DIFFERENT. (MAYER, 2001)

If adults can only hold a limited amount of information for processing, we need to consider children’s limits even more carefully because their brains are still developing. When we bombard our students with tons of visual stimulation (think colors and animations) that may not be relevant to what we are trying to teach them, can we actually ensure they are focusing on the right things? In order to illustrate this, I created another short video of the same green ball. However, this time, I’ve added a lot more to the video to brighten it up and make it more lively. As you watch it, notice where your eyes focus on the screen, or what your ears heard the most. 

THE ACTIVE PROCESSING ASSUMPTION: IN ORDER FOR MEANINGFUL LEARNING TO OCCUR, WE MUST BE ABLE TO PROCESS THE INFORMATION RECEIVED THROUGH THE DUAL CHANNELS. THIS MEANS WE ARE ABLE TO DO THINGS SUCH AS ORGANIZE THE INFORMATION OR INTEGRATE IT WITH PRIOR KNOWLEDGE. (MAYER, 2001)

At the end of the day, we need to ensure that our students are set up for success. Make sure that you are designing digital lessons in a way that helps students focus on the right things so that they can actively process that information. Here are a few things I try to keep in mind:

  • Display key information prominently, in the center of the screen if you can

  • Create repetitive structures and designs (i.e., layout, fonts, and colors). Young children can learn repetition. If you present information in the same way each time, they will learn your structure.

  • As you add things to your design, always ask yourself, “is this element on the screen going to aid understanding or distract my students from the learning?”

We aren’t always going to get it right, and goodness knows, I’ve created my fair share of overstimulating digital content. But with this knowledge, we can continue to work toward designing more appropriate digital lessons that will not overwhelm, but instead, help students integrate and understand.

References:

Hollender, N., Hofmann, C., Deneke, M., & Schmitz, B. (2010). Integrating cognitive load theory and concepts of human–computer interaction. Computers in human behavior, 26(6), 1278-1288.

Kirkorian, H. L., & Anderson, D. R. (2008). Television and learning. Educating the other AMarcica: Top experts tackle poverty, literacy, and achievement in our schools. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.

Mayer, R.E. (2001). A Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning.  In Mayer, R., Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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