When the American Academy of Pediatrics first issued its guidelines for daily screen-time limits, parents worried most about hours wasted watching television and playing video games. Now, screens power nearly every daily action: reading, communicating, listening to music, playing games, and devouring cat memes.
On any given day day, the average 8- to 18-year-old American spends 7 hours and 38 minutes using media for entertainment – excluding computer use for school or homework1. This staggering number correlates to our kids’ easy access to mobile screens including smartphones, iPods, tablets, and laptop computers. On average, American kids get their first smartphone at age 10.3 today. What’s more, 53% of tweens own a tablet and 67% of teens own a smartphone.
At the same time, only 34% of American 15 year olds are proficient in math and science2. 37 nations rank higher in math scores; 23 rank higher in reading and science, including Vietnam, Slovenia, and Poland.
This inverse relationship between technological ubiquity and academic performance need not exist. Learning and technology are not sworn enemies. In fact, technology harnessed properly by well-prepared parents can help a child achieve greater academic and social success — even during the summer. Here is how.
Why Do Kids Fixate On Digital Media?
“My child can’t have ADHD; you should see him when he plays video games!” Thanks to the common (and commonly misunderstood) ADHD symptom of hyperfocus, many children with the condition become cognitively and emotionally immersed in game play. Screens seem to amplify this focus, and their willingness to persist in tasks – a diligence that just isn’t seen when working on something less interesting, like homework.
Why? Games are multimodal, and give immediate feedback in a way that appeals to the ADHD nervous system. In addition, games like Minecraft lack binding rules and milestones. Instead, children are free to discover and construct things, without fear of messing up – a feeling they so often encounter in school and home life. In the virtual world, they are free to learn, create, and succeed. If they fail, it is private, and they are free to try again, then, experience a dopamine rush when they achieve a goal.
The Positives of Digital Play
Anecdotal evidence suggests that digital play can help children who struggle socially to connect with peers. They can play with others virtually, discuss their experiences, and demonstrate their in-game creations. Academic research also shows that certain apps, games, and technology can help children improve their academic, cognitive, social, and executive function skills. Positive effects include:
- Increasing processing speed3
- Improving working memory4
- Increasing pro-social behavior in children5
- Improving social involvement6
- Building brain regions7
The Risks of Too Much Digital Play
The negative effects on children of too much digital play are even better documented:
- Increasing levels of obesity as screen time, primarily television, goes up8
- More than 3 hours of daily video-games play can result in poor psychological adjustment among children9
- Playing violent video games can increase aggressive behavior and thoughts in children, and decrease empathy for others10
- Adolescents are especially prone to video game addiction (also known as internet gaming disorder), a condition that is commonly comorbid with ADHD, depression, and anxiety11
Children will gravitate toward technology, no matter the risks. Parents, educators, and clinicians are responsible for finding ways to use it to benefit children – and offset the dangers.
Harnessing the Benefits of Screens This Summer
Summer is an opportunity. It is a time to expand learning beyond four walls, and encourage the kind of hands-on education that children with ADHD especially love. With some vigilance and creativity, parents can fill summer vacation with learning and healthy habits that will set up their children for success at school. Here’s how:
1. Sneak Exercise into Screen Time for Kids
Exercise improves and increases a protein in the brain that promotes focus and stress management. Studies demonstrate improvements in working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation skills with exercise. In other words, activity is not just about releasing excess energy; it can change a child’s brain chemistry12. But kids don’t always choose exercise on their own. Parents, teachers, and caretakers need to encourage physical activity – in part by leading with example. This means taking after-dinner walks and weekend bike rides, but it also means getting creative with digital devices.
- Purchase (or rent) sports-based games. Children who play soccer or basketball digitally are more likely to go outside and play those games in real life.
- Watch nature-inspired TV shows or YouTube videos with local connections. For example, if you live near the coast, watch a program on sharks or marine life, then walk and explore the beach with your child.
- Start a family fitness tracker competition. Give a child a Fitbit, and he will count steps for a day. Launch a month-long family competition (with restaurant or movie reward at the end), and he exercises all summer long.
- Practice yoga or find fun exercise videos that can help get out the wiggles when it’s too hot or too rainy to go outdoors.
- Choose apps that require walking.Pokémon Go is a great example of a game that forces children outdoors to explore and rack up points.
- Create a photo project. Children love to take pictures and videos. Encourage your child to use the family’s digital camera to find critters on a nature walk, or capture the view while skateboarding – anything that keeps her in motion. Then, post the images online as part of a social, creative experience.
2. Use Apps to Support Real-World Skills
Don’t abandon hard-won academic skills — like long division, presidential facts, or strong writing chops — over the summer. Instead, resolve to develop these skills — and make it fun by building on your child’s natural interests and by using these digital tools:
- Put Siri to work. Dictation skills help many children with slow processing speed or working memory problems keep up with schoolwork. Most smartphones have dictation software built in. Teach your child how to use it by writing an interesting paragraph, then dictating it using a smart phone. Set a timer to demonstrate the time savings with dictation.
- Practice using Notability. Assign your child a fun project, like taking notes on a talk show. Notability will record the audio of a show or lecture while your child writes notes on an iPad. Then, she can click on a part of the notes to hear what she may have missed. This exercise can prepare her to use the program in the classroom.
- Download Quizlet, an app that tests children on subjects from geography to cosmetology. Pick an area that needs improvement, and let your child click and learn. During the school year, students can create their own study sets to prepare for exams.
- Disguise learning as fun with BrainPop. Children can watch videos about plants and technology, and play games while learning new facts.
- Use the Calm app to teach mindfulness. Meditation techniques can help with stress management during the summer and beyond.
- Replace Minecraft with Dragon Quest Builders. If you want to instill some variety in your child’s routine, swap in this app.
- Watch a cooking show together. Particularly MasterChef Junior, or a similar one that features children. Then, download a cooking app and ask your child to find an interesting recipe. Work together to prepare it.
For more resources, visit learningworksforkids.com/additude.
1“Daily Media Use Among Children and Teens Up Dramatically From Five Years Ago.” The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Web. (http://www.kff.org/disparities-policy/press-release/daily-media-use-among-children-and-teens-up-dramatically-from-five-years-ago/)2Drew Desilver. “U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries.” Pew Research Center. (2017). Web. (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/15/u-s-students-internationally-math-science/)3Matthew W.G. Dye, C. Shawn Green, and Daphne Bavelier. “Increasing Speed of Processing With Action Video Games.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 18(6) (2009): 321–326. Web.4Lisa B. Thorell, Sofia Lindqvist, Sissela Bergman Nutley, Gunilla Bohlin and Torkel Klingberg. “Training and transfer effects of executive functions in preschool children.” Developmental Science 12(1) (2009): 106–113. Web.5Saleem , M., Anderson, C. A. & Gentile, D. A. “Effects of Prosocial, Neutral, and Violent Video Games on Children’s Helpful and Hurtful Behaviors.” Aggressive Behavior 38(4) (2012): 281–287. Web.6Christopher J. Ferguson. “Video Games Don’t Make Kids Violent.” Time. (2011). Web. (http://ideas.time.com/2011/12/07/video-games-dont-make-kids-violent/)7Kühn, S., Gleich, T., Lorenz, R. C., Lindenberger, U., Gallinat, J. “Playing Super Mario induces structural brain plasticity: gray matter changes resulting from training with a commercial video game.” Molecular Psychiatry 19(2) (2014): 265–271. Web.8“Television Watching and ‘Sit Time’.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Web. (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-causes/television-and-sedentary-behavior-and-obesity/)9Andrew K. Przybylski “Electronic Gaming and Psychosocial Adjustment.” Pediatrics 134(3) (2014). Web.10Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D. “The effects of violent video games. Do they affect our behavior?” ITHP. Web. (http://ithp.org/articles/violentvideogames.html)11Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. “Are Video Games Addictive?” Psychology Today. Web. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201308/are-video-games-addictive)12Gapin JI, Labban JD, Etnier JL. “The effects of physical activity on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms: the evidence..” Preventive Medicine 52 (2011): S70-S74. Web.